12 Winters Blog

In the Heart of the Heart of Despair

Posted in May 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 27, 2017

“In the Heart of the Heart of Despair: Seclusion in the Fiction of William H. Gass” was presented at the American Literature Association annual Conference on American Literature in Boston, May 25-28, 2017. It was part of the panel “The American Recluse: Contesting Individualism in Narratives of Isolation and Withdrawal,” chaired by Susan Scheckel, Stony Book University. The panel was organized by Matthew Mosher (Stony Brook), and he presented his paper “‘Our Inviolate Realm’: Self-Reliance and Self-Destruction in E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley.”


First of all, I’d like to thank Matt Mosher for inviting me to join this panel on recluses in American fiction. His invitation encouraged my wife Melissa and me to attend this terrific conference for the first time, and visit Boston for the first time. More important, however, Matt has opened my eyes to an aspect of William H. Gass’s work that is so obvious and so foundational I never quite saw it in spite of spending the last decade of my scholarly life focused primarily on Gass (aka, “the Master”). From his very first fiction publication, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” in 1961, to his most recent, 2016’s collection of novellas and stories, Eyes, Gass’s protagonists have almost always been solitary souls, withdrawn from their various social spheres: in a word, reclusive. In various papers and reviews of Gass’s work, I have nibbled around the edges of this realization, discussing the loneliness and/or isolation of individual characters—but I’ve never noticed the pattern, a proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room of Gass scholarship.

Gass imposingAs the title suggests, my main focus for this paper will be Gass’s early experimental story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (published independently and as the title story of his seminal collection in 1968); it’s important to note, though, that I could have tossed a dart at my William H. Gass bookcase and whichever spine it came to rest in would have provided ample material with which to write this paper. According to the law of probability, I likely would have landed my dart in The Tunnel, and it would have been an especially fruitful stroke of fate. I say it would have been likely because Gass’s American Book Award-winning novel tips the scales at more than 650 pages, and I have three copies (plus the audiobook) among the volumes in my Gass bookcase. I describe the dart’s prick as fruitful because the first-person narrator William Kohler (a sort of William Gass doppelgänger) spends the entire 650 pages of the book sitting alone in his basement writing a highly personal and ego-centric memoir, which is The Tunnel itself.

I’ve chosen to focus primarily on Gass’s earlier work, however, because it’s more manageable given the context of this paper, and also it provides ample insights to what I believe is at the core of this phenomenon: this pattern of isolated characters in Gass’s fiction. (As I write this paper, I’m anxious to hear what Matt and my fellow panelists have to say on the subject of reclusive characters and see if it complements or contradicts my ideas about Gass’s characters.) I shall leave you, for the moment at least, in deductive suspense regarding my theory.

Earlier I referred to “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as an experimental story. “Experimental” is certainly true; for “story” one must broaden one’s sense of the word. A story is normally something with a plot, that is, a discernible conflict and at least a nod toward resolution. Not so with the Master. “In the Heart” features 36 sections with subheadings. The sections vary in length from just a few sentences to several pages, and their styles range from coldly clinical to lusciously lyrical. There is no central conflict, at least not in a typical sense. The story was somewhat inspired by William Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927)—in fact, it begins by more or less quoting from the poem’s second stanza, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” —and its structure is loosely based on the ottava rima form that Yeats used for his 32-line poem. It is their kindredness in theme, though, which is of greatest importance to our purpose here.

in the heart cover 2Yeats begins by lamenting the deterioration of his physical self due to old age (he was in his sixties when he wrote “Sailing to Byzantium”), but ends with the understanding that the physical is fleeting while the soul that aspires to a higher artistic ideal is immortal. In Gass’s story, the unnamed first-person narrator is an aging poet who has come to B, a small town in Indiana, and is reflecting on his life in this mundane Midwestern locale, season upon season, year upon year. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is not merely a prose interpretation of Yeats’s poem, which ends on a more optimistic note than it began. On the contrary, Gass’s story starts bleak and only grows darker. Repeatedly the narrator refers to his own isolation and loneliness, as well as to the isolation and loneliness of his Hoosier neighbors. Early in the story, he tells us that he is “in retirement from love,” and “I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). The story concludes, 28 pages later, with the narrator’s sense of isolation at Christmastime in the town, a time which represents the pinnacle of the town’s communal life. He finds himself (or merely imagines himself) in the deserted downtown, which has been bedecked for the holiday: “But I am alone, leaning against a pole—no . . . there is no one in sight. […] There’s no one to hear the music [“Joy to the World”] but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else” (206).

Meanwhile, in the heart of the story, the narrator describes, here and there, his various fellow townspeople, especially his neighbor Billy Holsclaw, who “lives alone” (179). The narrator paints a sad picture of Billy (unshaven, dirty with “coal dust,” dressed in “tatters”), and ends the initial section about him with the statement “Billy closes his door and carries coal or wood to his fire and closes his eyes, and there’s simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he’s as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the country” (180). We note that the narrator describes Billy’s actions inside of his house even though it is not possible for him to know what goes on after Billy shuts the door; thus, the narrator seems to be assuming Billy’s behavior based on his own, alone in his own house. This point brings up an important issue in the story: How does the narrator have access to all that he describes in B? H. L. Hix asserts, “He does not wander out into the world, so the reader gets not a picture of B, but a picture of the narrator’s confinement, the view from his cell” (49). Not literal cell of course: the cell of his isolation, his loneliness: the cell from which he projects everyone else’s isolation and loneliness.

Referring to the narrator’s view underscores what would become a major motif in Gass’s fiction: the window. There are numerous references to windows and what the narrator sees framed in them in “In the Heart.” He describes the windows of his house as “bewitching [. . . with] holy magical insides” (179). Through his window he views vivacious young women and fantasizes about them: “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands” (179), and “[Y]our buttocks are my pillow; we are adrift on a raft; your back is our river” (188). However, he knows he is well beyond the point when any such contact could reasonably take place. This realization makes especially poignant his later observation that rather than interacting with the world directly he has “had intercourse by eye” (202). That is, he has lived mainly through observation of his fellow human beings, not by talking to and connecting with them directly.

As I said, references to windows are everywhere in Gass’s oeuvre. The story “Icicles,” also collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, begins with the main character, Fender, sitting down to a lonely dinner eaten from a tray in his living room and looking through his picture window: “[H]is gaze pass[es] idly along the streets in the wheel ruts and leaping the disorderly heaps of snow. He was vaguely aware of the ice that had curtained a quarter of his window . . .” (121). Here the ice emphasizes the coldness of this sort of existence, an existence void of human warmth for Fender, even though his profession as a real estate agent requires him to interact with people all the time. Unlike the narrator of “In the Heart,” Fender does engage with people, but this engagement does not lessen his isolation; it only amplifies it. This is an important variation on the theme of isolation in Gass’s work. Often, Gass’s characters are not literally alone, but they feel isolated and lonely nevertheless. William Kohler in The Tunnel is married, but to a wife he hates and who has no interest in his life’s work as a historian. As the title suggests, Babs, the wife in the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, is isolated, lonely and horny in spite of her marital status, or perhaps because of it. The ironically named, antisocial Mr. Gab of the novella “In Camera” spends his dreary days inside his shop that sells black-and-white photographic prints, with only his assistant Stu (short for “stupid”) for company. The boy-narrator, Jorge, in “The Pedersen Kid” is living among his family on a farm in North Dakota but is as desperately lonely as a boy can be thanks to his bellicosely alcoholic father, brutalized and traumatized mother, and live-in farmhand Hans, who may be molesting Jorge. The list goes on and on. (The Master is a real feel-good kind of author.)

All fictive writing is autobiographical to some degree, but Gass has never been one to make the veil especially opaque. The autobiographical elements flash neon in his work, and in his copious interviews he has been happy to connect the dots for readers and critics. In The Tunnel (his magnum opus) and Willie Masters’ he’s given the main characters his own name, or variations of it. The tunnel-digging William Kohler is a university professor, as was Gass, with a history and a list of interests quite similar to Gass’s. Eerily similar; disturbingly similar for some readers. Joseph Skizzen of the novel Middle C is an isolated music professor who specializes in Arnold Schoenberg, the composer whose twelve-tone system Gass used to structure The Tunnel. Like Jorge in “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass was born in North Dakota and grew up an only child in a family devastated by alcoholism and hatred. The list goes on and on.

Gass painted

Understanding the extremely close—at times, uncomfortably close—connection between Gass himself and his characters is especially important when viewed alongside his fascination with windows. Hix explains: “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s […] fiction” (124). Windows, then, and their representation of separation through observation, seem to be a commentary on Gass’s own sense of isolation: that is, Gass the writer, Gass the intellectual, Gass the artist. It is the artist’s job—their curse perhaps—to observe the world around them, closely; to think about it, deeply; and share their interpretations with the world, honestly. It is a vital function, but one that requires and creates distance from one’s family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In a 1984 interview, Gass identified himself as “a radical, but not one allied with any party. Parties force you to give up your intellect” (Saltzman 92). In other words, he was, in essence, a lone-wolf radical. To clarify, Gass has not seen himself as a writer with an overt political agenda, but rather one with a loftier, more ethereal, more profound goal: the alteration of his readers’ consciousness. [About the photo: William H. Gass painted by Philip Guston for his lecture at Yaddo, “Why Windows Are Important To Me,” 1969.]

In his landmark essay “The Artist and Society” (1968), Gass writes that the artist is “[naturally] the enemy of the state” and “[h]e is also the enemy of every ordinary revolution” (287). Moreover, he “cannot play politics, succumb to slogans and other simplifications, worship heroes, ally himself with any party, suck on some politician’s program like a sweet. […] He undermines everything.” Again, the artist/writer as lone-wolf radical. The payoff, though, can be sublimely effective. Gass writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inactions are only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). In other words, to be the sort of artist, the sort of writer, the sort of radical Gass admires most—the sort whose work will be worth reading a century from now, or a millennia—he must be solitary and isolated: the observer behind the window encased in ice.

Paul Valery 1If this paper were to be extended, I’d try to make the case that Gass’s philosophy may be traceable to one of his idols, the French writer Paul Valéry, of whom he said, “He dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent . . .” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, xi). Known mainly as a poet and essayist, Valéry also wrote the novella “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” (1896), whose title character is an isolated intellectual very much akin to many of Gass’s fictional creations, especially William Kohler and Joseph Skizzen. In the Preface to his novella, Valéry describes the philosophy which led to the creation of the character Monsieur Teste (or, in English, essentially “Mr. Head”), and I think at this point we can see that it could have been written by his devotee, William H. Gass. I shall let Valéry’s translated words be my final ones here:

I made it my rule secretly to consider as void or contemptible all opinions and habits of mind that arise from living together and from our external relations with other men, which vanish when we decide to be alone. And I could think only with disgust of all the ideas and all the feelings developed or aroused in man by his fears and his ills, his hopes and his terrors, and not freely by his direct observation of things and himself. . . .  I had made for myself an inner island and spent my time reconnoitering and fortifying it. . . . (4-5)

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88. [The complete draft, from William H. Gass’s papers, is available online via Washington University.]

—. “Icicles.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981, pp. 120-162.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981,  pp. 172-206.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. xi-xiii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. Translated by Jackson Mathew, Princeton UP, 1989.

Interview with Jim O’Loughlin: Dean Dean Dean Dean

Posted in January 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on January 19, 2017

I met Jim O’Loughlin, in person, in September 2011. My first novel Men of Winter had come out at the end of 2010, and our mutual friend Jeremy Schraffenberger (also, a colleague of Jim’s at University of Northern Iowa) helped arrange an invitation for me to read from the novel at Jim O’Loughlin’s long-running Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Jim was the consummate host, both from a literary standpoint and a personal standpoint.

Time passed (as it does), and in April 2015 I was delighted to do another reading for Jim and Final Thursday — this time a group reading of my story “The Drama of Consonants” (part of my forthcoming book Crowsong for the Stricken). It was great fun. Each paragraph in the story focuses on a specific character. I read the narrator part.  Jim pitched in and read a part, as did Jeremy Schraffenberger, as did my wife Melissa, plus some conscripted graduate students, and even Jim’s mother, who was in town for a visit.

Afterward, a group of us went to Whiskey Road in downtown Cedar Falls for refreshments and to talk shop. One of the news items we discussed was the fact that Jim’s collection of flash fiction, Dean Dean Dean Dean, had been picked up by a small press and would be out in the next year or so. I didn’t know Jim had a collection; for a brief moment I entertained the idea of trying to poach Jim’s book away from the competitor press, but it was patently unethical. (I’m blaming my wobbly ethics on the refreshments.) That summer I invited Jim to read from his forthcoming book at an event I co-hosted in Springfield, Illinois. It was a terrific reading, and Jim even got his daughter and son in on the act. The next day my wife and I had the opportunity to do one of our favorite activities: play tour guides for the O’Loughlin family as we visited various Abraham Lincoln sites in Springfield.

Time continued to pass — and the press that intended to bring out Dean Dean Dean Dean collapsed (as small presses will). I never like to see such things happen, but it afforded Twelve Winters Press the opportunity to pick up the book in its stead. In summer 2016, Jim worked with TWP editor Pamm Collebrusco to finalize the collection for publication. In the fall I stepped back into the process to create the book, working closely with Jim, who also directs Final Thursday Press in conjunction with the Reading Series.

I’m pleased to announce the publication of Dean Dean Dean Dean, a collection of flash fiction by Jim O’Loughlin, available in print and digital editions (Kindle and Nook).

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It’s become a tradition that when the Press releases a new title, I interview the author about the book and writing-related issues. The posted interviews attract a considerable amount of traffic on the Web. I sent Jim some questions, and here are his emailed responses.

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What do you find attractive about the flash form?

Here’s the thing: you will often find people who reluctantly admit that flash fiction is okay, maybe, because young people have such short attention spans now. What people? The generation that grew up reading the Harry Potter series, even the will-break-your-toe-if-you-drop-it fifth book? Readers don’t have a problem with long works. The issue is that many readers now process information quickly and have less tolerance for windy prose. Flash fiction speaks to that audience, and it is not afraid to fight for them in the arena of contemporary media.

Have you also been working on longer creative work as well?

I write both flash and traditional length stories, and I have a novel I’m currently revising, so I feel all kinds of fiction have a place.

Tell us about the Final Thursday Reading Series. How it began, how it has evolved, how you’ve been able to maintain it for so long … that kind of thing.

I started FTRS not long after I moved to Iowa. There was a local used bookstore, Bought again Books, that had just started a coffeehouse in an attached space, and they were open to new programming ideas. The monthly series started there in a room that comfortably fit a dozen people and broke fire code at about 40, and we hit both extremes over the eight years we were there. When the owner, David Crownfield, developed health issues and had to close the bookstore, the series moved to the Hearst Center for the Arts, a community arts center located in the former house of poet James Hearst. In this new location and with the support of the Hearst Center, the series has grown in popularity, attracting anywhere from 40-70 people each month. It’s in its 16th season now, and it has become an important part of the local literary culture. First, there’s coffee. Then, there’s an open mic. After that, a regional author takes the stage. Sometimes we wind up at a bar afterward. Occasionally there’s bowling or billiards. No one has gotten hurt yet.

My sense is that many of the flash pieces, if not all, were written with the open mic part of the Reading Series in mind, with your wanting to have a short piece or two you could read as time allowed or necessitated before the featured author’s reading. Is that true?

I typically start off the open mic each month, and I try to come up with a new piece each time. When the series first started, the open mic attracted some really dour poets — don’t get me wrong: I love dour poetry! I just found it was good to give the audience permission to laugh at the beginning of the night. Over time, having a humorous opening story to lead with became a conscious goal. Also, having a deadline I have to hit each month keeps me honest. It’s been good training, and the vast majority of the stories in Dean Dean Dean Dean got their start as performance pieces.

Who are some of your favorite writers of humor or satire? Do you see your work in this collection as being in the tradition of a specific author or group of authors?

I regularly teach a class on Mark Twain, Dean Dean Dean Dean riffs on Joseph Heller’s character Major Major Major Major, and I’m currently working on a critical book on Kurt Vonnegut, so those are clear influences on me. But I’m also influenced by writers like Louise Erdrich, who is a master of the short scene, and Jennifer Egan, who can create complex characters concisely (I claim the alliteration for myself).

Was it Edmund Gwenn who said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”? Do you agree? Is humor writing especially challenging? Do you begin by trying to write a humorous piece, or does the humor work its way into the narrative organically?

Maybe Edmund Kean? Google is divided on the attribution. Humor writing, like cilantro, free jazz, and the films of Baz Luhrmann, is not for everyone. But it is something that you can get better at over time, particularly if you get to see how an audience reacts to your work.

In terms of organizing Dean Dean Dean Dean, what was your thought process in terms of which pieces should be included, which excluded, and how did you arrive at the final order?

My main goal was to have the stories in the collection not be predictable, so I tried a range of different approaches and styles. I hope that keeps readers on their toes and eager to see what’s next.

What are some other projects you’re working on?

I’m currently revising a science fiction novel called The Cord. The book is set in the future on either end of a space elevator connecting the Earth with an orbiting station. No punch line: That’s really what I’m doing. If you don’t believe me, ask me a question about apex anchors or carbon nanotubes.


Jim O’Loughlin is an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches courses in American literature, creative writing and digital humanities. He is the director of the long-running Final Thursday Reading Series and Final Thursday Press. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his wife and children. Dean Dean Dean Dean is his first collection. (Author photo by Carole Fishback)

Interview with Grant Tracey: Cheap Amusements

Posted in August 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 18, 2016

When I started Twelve Winters Press in 2012, I modeled it, spiritually at least, after the Hogarth Press, the legendary press operated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf (founded in 1917). Hogarth became known as a publisher of groundbreaking work, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1924), for example, and the Standard Edition of the translated works of Sigmund Freud, as well as Virginia Woolf’s own experimental modernist novels.What many people don’t know, however, is that the Woolfs also published detective fiction. (See Diane F. Gillespie’s essay on the subject.)

Hence I considered it not only serendipitous but a downright good omen when I discovered that Grant Tracey had written a detective novel. The Press brought out Grant’s story collection Final Stanzas in 2015, and in the biographical note he sent me he mentioned that he was writing a crime novel set in 1960s Toronto. Mindful of the Woolfs, I was intrigued, so I asked if I could read the manuscript. He promptly sent me Cheap Amusements, featuring Hayden Fuller, an ex-hockey player turned private eye. What a wild ride! I was determined that Twelve Winters would bring out this hardboiled detective novel that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre while also bringing something fresh and very contemporary to the form.

The book was released in hardcover as well as Kindle and Nook editions on August 11. I sent Grant some interview questions, and here are his unedited responses. Grant’s lively and insightful remarks are almost as much fun to read as the novel itself. Enjoy!

Cheap Amusements Front cover 1000

You’ve had a long love affair with detective stories. Who are some of your favorite writers, and when did you first discover you had a taste for the hardboiled?

My favorite hardboiled writer is Raymond Chandler. I first discovered him in high school. I started with Hammett (The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest), but when I read Chandler I knew something special was happening with the language, a guarded romanticism tinged with sadness. His prose was poignant; his hero, Philip Marlowe, had heart, nobility, and dignity. I liked him. I wanted to be like him. He wasn’t an anti-hero. He was a decent person. And those similes: “He had a face that looked like a dried lung.” Love it. Needless to say my early forays into the hardboiled were somewhat derivative. I think I even wrote a ridiculous overripe description that went something like: “He had a past pluperfect face.” Whatever that means. The PI stories I wrote at seventeen, eighteen and nineteen were all set in Cleveland, of all places. What did I know about Cleveland? And my PI was housed at the Rosevelt Hotel. Yes, spelled with one “o”. I didn’t know anything about American history either, apparently. But those stories were a start and I had to begin somewhere.

Grant 5

Can you point to any particular authors whose influence you can see in your own writing? Have you consciously adopted any technique from a beloved author or book?

Definitely Chandler in terms of plotting, and my own sense of hopeful optimism. Richard Stark in terms of lean prose and toughness. Donald Westlake for comedy and a lighter tone. Mickey Spillane for pure emotional violence. I love the energy of Spillane. In terms of appearance I see Hayden, in his 1950s crewcut, looking a bit like a Jewish Mickey Spillane. In terms of literary writers, who isn’t influenced by Hemingway? His style lends itself to the hardboiled. But two bigger influences on my voice are Steven Schwartz, especially his emphasis on interiority, narrative telling, and the inner story, and Bernard Malamud, my all-time favorite writer, with his emphasis on suffering, mourning, and the struggle to do the right thing. Like Malamud’s family, my mom’s family ran a corner Variety store and lived above it. At the risk of sounding preachy, I think of myself as a moral writer. Schwartz is a moral writer. So’s Malamud. I was born in 1960 and grew up on American television: The Defenders, Naked City, Combat, Star Trek, and The Loner. These stories presented weekly morality plays, and what I gleaned from their writers is an underlying feeling of optimism. If you treat people with respect and dignity and equality, then those people in turn will accord the same respect to others and have a stake in and contribute to society. I still have that feeling of hopeful optimism about what this country is and where it can go. I’m not big on dystopic narratives, even though most detective stories, in the American tradition are pyrrhic, the detective dies a little under the weight of the case and violent crimes he’s enmeshed in. Hayden Fuller is a fallen figure, but he empathizes with others, has a big heart, and tries to do right. He doesn’t always succeed, but who does?

Anyway, three other influences. Film Noir. I love the look and feel of the 1940s and 1950s and my PI’s name crosses tough guy actor Sterling Hayden with ultra-cool director Samuel Fuller. A lot of my painterly images are inspired by jazz album covers, the fashion of TV shows like The Green Hornet and Honey West, and the look and vibe of such masters of painting with light as directors of photography John Alton (check out The Big Combo) and Joe MacDonald (Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is essential viewing). The whole idea of the “third face” in Cheap Amusements came from Samuel Fuller, a former corporal in The Big Red One. Jazz. The novel was composed listening exclusively to hard-bop jazz of the 50s and 60s: Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the greatest drummer of them all, Art Blakey. I love that music. It resonates urban angst and urgency and when I feel jazz I see images. I don’t think about words, lyrics, or the words I’m trying to write. Instead, the sounds give me an improvisational feel and I trust my instincts. I don’t worry about plot or my plot outline; I just follow the flow and go wherever the character and the mood dictates. Like jazz musicians leaving the core of the chart for tangential free floats, I float and float in random images, and then return. Hockey. I’m a Canadian, a Toronto city kid, and hockey’s in my blood. It was the way my immigrant grandparents became Canadian and they and my parents, in turn, passed down a love of the game to me. I’m also an avid historian of the Original Six: the NHL from 1942–1967, so all of the hockey details come from imagined probabilities and stories that have been passed on from my father and mother. Recently, T. T. Monday has published two noir mysteries involving a relief pitcher, and I figured let’s have a PI who’s an ex-NHL’er. Ross Macdonald was one of the first hardboiled writers to have his hero (Lew Archer) feel fallen for being a “divorce” detective and slinking about in the dirty skinny of “cheaters.” So I gave Hayden a similar backstory, one that got him ousted from the good old, secret-handshake society of the Original Six NHL.

Obviously the mystery or detective story has a long history–many attribute the modern detective story to Edgar Allan Poe in the mid nineteenth century–so how have you tried to put your own spin on the genre in Cheap Amusements?

I guess my spin is to combine the old with the new. I want to return to those writers I love: Chandler, Spillane, Stark, Jim Thompson, but with a literary emphasis. Literary writing is all about character-to-character interaction. What do these counter points, opposites, draw out from each other? It’s not about following a plot. Detectives follow the plot string, yes, but to get the answers they need they read people and this is what most literary writers do (character over plot). Moreover, I wanted to have heightened lyrical moments, to allow the language of the story to take me places. There are a couple of such moments in Cheap Amusements. In one, Hayden slips into “pockets of silence,” zones of stillness, where he’s transported into being a kid at a fair; in another moment he slips into the transcendent contemplations that ice skating can bring.

I also, again at the risk of sounding preachy, want to distance myself from the somewhat sordid tradition of salacious sex and sexism that abounds in the hardboiled tradition. I travel in those areas (the femme fatale, pornography, sexual exploitation), but I try to place the emphasis on bad male behavior, men exploiting women, as opposed to Eve-like women asking us to join her in eating the apple. I try not to be too titillating about the sex. I try to right some of the past wrongs of the hardboiled tradition, but like Hayden I don’t always succeed.

We are billing Cheap Amusements as a literary detective novel. In your mind, what does that adjective mean in this case (ha), and how does it make your book different from, say, a more run-of-the-mill detective story?

Detective stories are often restricted to first-person or limited third point-of-views and I have both. I begin the novel with a brief, surreal limited third point of view because I wanted the past event that haunts Hayden to almost feel unreal, as if it’s not being remembered correctly. But the rest first-person, pretty traditional. However, as I said earlier, the emphasis on detective fiction needs to be on character and character-to-character interactions, what the detective observes and surmises. That’s literary. Moreover. Language. I hate invisible flat prose, the kind that abounds in bad genre writing. I want to engage readers with my language, characterizations, and plotting. I want to keep giving them the unexpected within the expected, the defamiliar within the familiar. I want the plot to take them on a journey where the answer to the central question makes sense but still surprises in some way. There’s also a lot of comedy in Cheap Amusements from the dialogue zingers to some of the situations. At least I kept cracking myself up while writing it. And I see that as investing in the absurdist, literary tradition.

Some early readers of the book have noted the main character’s similarities to you. How much of Hayden Fuller is you? How is he different from his creator?

Hayden is a 1950s cat in a 1960s world and I feel the same way. I’m a retro guy in the new millennium. My glasses, a kind of mask, are Malcolm X or Vince Lombardi inspired. I wear white socks. With everything! I just finally got a smart phone! Hayden sports a porkpie because I like them and I wear them too. Like me, he cares deeply about people, has a passion for hockey, is sexually shy, and is somewhat of a wise-ass (very confident in his comic touches that he likes to drop in any moment). He’s not me in the sense that he’s tough. I run, I mean a ten-second 100 meter dash, from conflict. And Hayden can skate! I was hopeless on skates, my weak ankles always nicking up the ice’s surface. I played two years of house league, was a defenseman, and my coach always had me playing one zone back. So let’s say the puck is in the other team’s end. My D-partner was parked at their blue line and I was parked at the checkered center line! However, I was a great road hockey player or ball hockey as we later called it. Played forward and goalie. But me and Hayden, we both believe in the goodness of people. We both aspire to be professionals and do our jobs the best we can. We want other people to succeed.

You’ve published more than fifty short stories and four collections. When did you decide to try your hand at a detective novel? Did the character of Hayden Fuller come to you fairly early in the creative process, or did it take awhile to develop him?

As I said previously, crime novels were my first love. When I sent my sister the Twelve Winters trailer for Cheap Amusements she said, “Broheem, this is what you’ve always wanted. I remember all those detective stories you wrote in high school and college. Film Noir, hot cars, and PIs.”

After getting my MA from K-State in English with a creative writing emphasis, I became totally committed to literary fiction, for years, publishing stories in small magazines, but I was always reading crime books. Noir, or mystery tropes figure in some of my literary stories: “Faraway Girl” and “Used and Abused” from Final Stanzas are indebted to those sensibilities. Anyway, a few years back I got hooked on the Hard Case Crime series edited by Charles Ardai and I enjoyed his mixing up of reprints with new arrivals, his retro blend of the old and new, and I thought what the fuck, I can do this, there’s a market for non-CSI crime stories. And between October–November 0f 2014, in 40 days, listening to jazz, I wrote the first draft of Cheap Amusements.

Hayden Fuller emerged very quickly. I didn’t have to think about him at all or create him. He was just there. It was so strange. The porkpie, the attitude, the passion for hockey. I could totally see him and be him. It was a perfect fit. And the voice was there. Right from day one. It was magical. Only about a quarter of all the stories I’ve written did plotting or characterization flow as easily. Usually, I have to do substantial rewrites or tweaks. With Cheap Amusements and Hayden it was a smooth ride, like I was behind the wheel of a ’63 Ford Galaxie. It was as if all the other detective stories I’d written as a kid were a warm-up for the novel I was always meant to write.

You’ve created some strong and independent female characters, which tends to run contrary to the classic detective noir. I know this was a conscious choice on your part. Why so?

Like I said before, I want to be a part of and apart from the earlier hardboiled tradition of salacious sex and sexist portrayals of women. I have three daughters. I believe in Title IX and the rights of women. Future Hayden Fuller stories will feature even stronger female characters.

Your daughter Effy is one of your closest readers, and biggest fans. How important to your process is her reading your work? Does anyone else influence your work in progress?

Effy’s writing is very bright. By that I mean her stories, characters, burn with passionate energy. They speak boldly, take risks, allow themselves to be vulnerable. They are always interesting. Her YA novels are amazing because Effy is totally committed to her story world and her characters. She cares so deeply about all of them. And I want to make sure that I’m equally committed, equally vulnerable, so I seek her guidance in making sure I’m being honest and fair. There’s a scene in the novel where Hayden cries. Is that part of the hardboiled tradition? I don’t care. It felt right and the honesty in Effy’s work encouraged me to pursue the same honesty in my own. She loved that moment, by the way. Effy also raises great plot questions and doesn’t let me skate by with nonsense. Hopefully she’ll soon find an agent for her work. It needs to be out there in the world. It’s that good. And if any agents are reading this, her name’s Effy Traicheff and she’s the real deal.

Mitchell D. Strauss, my all-around best buddy, is an avid crime noir reader (big fan of Harry Bosch) and after reading my first draft he told me I needed to toughen Hayden up a little bit. Take a little of the Grant Tracey out of Hayden Fuller. He also helped me create greater urgency in the overall narrative arc and pushed me to come up with a “splash” opening to draw readers in. Caitlin, my oldest daughter, reads all the time (fifty books this summer), and she loves all kinds of crime stories from Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels to Cheap Amusements. She helped with rewrites and replotting and honing in on Hayden’s sensibilities.

You’re frequently drawn to historical periods in your fiction, and Cheap Amusements is set in 1965. What’s the attraction of historical settings, and why the Sixties for this book?

I love the Sixties. So much optimism and a time of societal change: the Civil Rights Act, and the overall questioning of authority and patriarchal privilege. The era brought about the fight for gay rights, women rights, and war protest movements. I also just love the fashions, the look, the music (Dylan, Cash, the Stones), the TV shows.

Hockey is obviously a great love of yours. How does your passion for the game fuel your fiction?

In some ways the scaffolding for Cheap Amusements places elements of hockey into Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My Marlowe is an ex-NHL’er. The Sterwnood sisters are the Stabulas girls, hockey fans, and Eddie Mars, the gambler, is now Babe Migano, a crime kingpin with links, gambling and otherwise, to Maple Leaf Gardens. My story takes us into a demimonde of gangsters and sports, centering around Canada’s obsessions with hockey, and how such obsessions encourage reporters to look the other way, rather than at the institution’s flaws. Some hockey players did beat up their wives in the 1960s and the media didn’t address it.

I also loved writing all the hockey stuff, the inside info about the game’s history and sensibilities, and the novel does end with a hockey metaphor.

I know you’re thinking of the next Hayden Fuller mystery. Any hints about what that story may be about?

I’ve already started working on a sequel, “A Fourth Face.” Bobby Ehle, ex Leaf rear-guard, is accused of killing his ex-wife (she was stalked by him and beaten badly, but did he kill her?). He asks Hayden to find the real killer while Bobby contemplates fleeing to Cuba. Hayden’s journey leads him to a confrontation with Lennie Cassel, a Detroit mobster, Cliff Airedale, a plastic surgeon, and a host of other mobsters and corrupt businessmen and hockey scouts. Cheap Amusements supporting characters Babe Migano, Dawn Stoukas, and Sal Lambertino make their presence felt in this new two-fisted tale.

Readers have described the cinematic quality of your writing. How does your love of film and your passion for teaching film affect your narrative style? Who are some directors and/or screenwriters that you think have influenced your storytelling techniques?

In terms of straight-ahead literary writing, John Cassavetes and many of his films: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), and Husbands (1970) is a prime influence on my work. I like his emphasis on characterization and the shifting tonalities that occur in his scene work as conversations move from one mood to another, directing the story. He always places characters first. And in my own writing I want the dialogue to move like a Cassavetes film. In terms of Cheap Amusements, my influences are painterly: hard-bop jazz records, 1960s muscle cars, and noir visuals, the Nighthawks-like nightscapes of Alton and Macdonald and the irrational chaos of Samuel Fuller, and how you can’t trust what you see. The world is a swirl of confusion. I want my visuals to create a mood of urgency and, at times, alienation. In terms of my liberal leanings and sense of hope I’ve got to go with the TV writers: Paddy Chayefsky, Gene Roddenberry, Reginald Rose, and Rod Serling.


Grant Tracey, thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has published more than fifty short stories and four collections of his fiction, including Final Stanzas (released by Twelve Winters Press is 2015). He teaches courses in creative writing and film at the University of Northern Iowa, where he also serves as fiction editor of the prestigious North American Review. In addition to his writing, teaching and editing, Grant has performed in over twenty community theater productions. Visit Grant’s Amazon page. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss.)

Accidental Poets: Paul Valéry’s influence on William Gass

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 18, 2016

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held at the University of Louisville February 18-20. Others papers presented were “The Poet Philosopher and the Young Modernist: Fredrich Nietzshe’s Influence on T.S. Eliot’s Early Poetry” by Elysia C. Balavage, and “Selections from ‘The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927-1937’” by Yuki Tanaka. Other papers on William H. Gass are available at this blog site; search “Gass.”


In William H. Gass’s “Art of Fiction” interview, in 1976, he declared two writers to be his guiding lights—the “two horses” he was now “try[ing] to manage”:  Ranier Maria Rilke and Paul Valéry. He added, “Intellectually, Valéry is still the person I admire most among artists I admire most; but when it comes to the fashioning of my own work now, I am aiming at a Rilkean kind of celebrational object, thing, Dinge” (LeClair 18). That interview for The Paris Review was exactly forty years ago, and viewing Gass’s writing career from the vantage point of 2016, I am here to suggest that, yes, Rilke has been a major influence, but Valéry’s has been far greater than what Gass anticipated; and in fact may have been even greater than Rilke’s in the final analysis. Assessing influence, however, is complicated in this case, I believe, because a large part of Gass’s attraction to Valéry’s work in the first place was due to his finding the Frenchman to be a kindred spirit. Hence it is difficult to say how much of Gass is like Valéry because of Valéry’s influence and how much is because of their inherent like-mindedness.

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A quick survey of Gass’s work since 1976—which includes two novels, a collection of novellas, a collection of novellas and stories, and eight books of nonfiction—may imply that Rilke has been the greater influence, as Gass intended. After all, Gass’s magnum opus, The Tunnel (1995), for which he won the American Book Award, centers on a history professor of German ancestry who specializes in Nazi Germany (Rilke allusions abound); and his other post-1976 novel, Middle C (2013), for which he won the William Dean Howells Medal, centers on a music professor born in Vienna whose special interest is Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg; and, glaringly, there is Gass’s Reading Rilke (1999), his book-length study of the problems associated with translating Rilke into English. However, a more in-depth look at Gass’s work over these past four decades reveals numerous correspondences with Valéry, some of which I will touch upon in this paper. The correspondence that I will pay particular attention to, though, is that between the title character of Valéry’s experimental novella The Evening with Monsieur Teste (1896) and the protagonist of Gass’s Middle C, Joseph Skizzen.

Before I go further, a brief biographical sketch of Paul Valéry: He was born in 1871, and published two notable works in his twenties, the essay “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci” and Monsieur Teste; then he stopped publishing altogether for nearly twenty years—emerging from his “great silence” with the long poem “The Young Fate” in 1917 at the age of forty-six. During his “silence,” while he didn’t write for publication, he did write, practically every day, filling his notebooks. Once his silence was over, he was catapulted into the literary limelight, publishing poems, essays, and dramas, becoming perhaps the most celebrated man of letters in France. By the end of his life in 1945 he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature a dozen times.

The title for this paper comes from Gass himself. In his 1972 review of Valéry’s collected works, in the New York Times Book Review, he wrote that Valéry “invariably . . . [pretended] he wasn’t a poet; that he came to poetry by accident” (The World Within the Word 162). By the same token, Gass has insisted in numerous interviews (and he’s given many, many interviews) that he’s not a poet, that the best he can achieve is an amusing limerick. Others, however, have asserted that Gass’s fiction is more akin to poetry than prose, that his novellas and novels are in essence extremely long prose poems; and in spite of his insistence on his not being a poet, he would seem to agree with this view of his work. In a 1998 interview, for instance, Gass said, “I tend to employ a lot of devices associated with poetry. Not only metrical, but also rhyme, alliteration, all kinds of sound patterning” (Abowitz 144). Moreover, about a decade earlier he said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t stand a chance” (Saltzman 91). Critics have tended to include Gass in the group of writers whom Gass described as poet-novelists.

For your consideration, from The Tunnel:

A smile, then, like the glassine window in a yellow envelope. I smiled. In that selfsame instant, too, I thought of the brown, redly stenciled paper bag we had the grocer refill with our breakfast oranges during the splendid summer of sex and sleep just past—of sweetly sweating together, I would have dared to describe it then, for we were wonderfully foolish and full of ourselves, and nothing existed but your parted knees, my sighs, the torpid air. It was a bag—that bag—we’d become sentimental about because (its neck still twisted where we held it) you said it was wrinkled and brown as my balls, and resembled an old cocoon, too, out of which we would both emerge as juicy and new as the oranges, like “Monarchs of Melody,” and so on, and I said to you simply, Dance the orange (a quotation from Rilke), and you said, What? There was a pause full of café clatter. (160-61)

And beyond Gass’s poetic prose, he has written actual poems, besides the off-color limericks that populate The Tunnel. In Middle C, for example, there is a longish, single-stanza poem written via the persona of the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen. It begins, “The Catacombs contain so many hollow heads: / thighbones armbones backbones piled like wood, / some bones bleached, some a bit liverish instead: / bones which once confidently stood / on the floor of the world” (337). And, perhaps more significantly, there are the translated poems in Reading Rilke. There was a celebration held at Washington University in St. Louis in honor of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, Passages of Time, and he read from each of his works in chronological order, except he broke chronology to end with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet,” which concludes,

Oh, his face embraced this vast expanse,
which seeks him still and woos him yet;
now his last mask squeamishly dying there,
tender and open, has no more resistance,
than a fruit’s flesh spoiling in the air. (187)

It was a dramatic finale, especially since the event was supposed to be in July, near Gass’s birthday, but he was too ill to read then; so it was rescheduled for October, and the author had to arrive via wheelchair, and deliver the reading while seated. Happily, he was able to give another reading, a year later, when his new book, Eyes, came out. (I wasn’t able to attend the Eyes reading, so I’m not sure how he appeared, healthwise, compared to the Wash U. reading.)

My point is that, like Valéry, Gass has downplayed his abilities as a poet, yet his literary record begs to differ. The fact that he broke the chronology of his birthday celebration reading to conclude with a poem—and he had to consider that it may be his final public reading, held on the campus where he’d spent the lion’s share of his academic life—suggests, perhaps, the importance he has placed on his work as a poet, and also, of course, it may have been a final homage to one of his heroes. In spite of Gass’s frailness, his wit was as lively as ever. When he finished reading “The Death of the Poet,” and thus the reading, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Once the crowd settled, he said, “Rilke is good.”

Evidence of the earliness of Valéry’s influence or at least recognized kinship is the preface to Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), which Gass devotes almost entirely to the connection between the collection’s contents and the way that Valéry had assembled his oeuvre. Gass writes, “It is embarrassing to recall that most of Paul Valéry’s prose pieces were replies to requests and invitations. . . . [H]e turned the occasions completely to his account, and made from them some of his profoundest and most beautiful performances” (xi). Gass continues, “The recollection is embarrassing because the reviews and essays gathered here are responses too—ideas ordered up as, in emergency, militias are”; and then he describes his book as a “strange spectacle” in which he tries “to be both philosopher and critic by striving to be neither” (xii). So, Gass recognizes the parallel between the forces at work in Valéry’s literary life and his own. Gass has readily acknowledged the slowness with which his fiction has appeared (notably, it took him some twenty-six years to write The Tunnel), citing two reasons: the slowness with which he writes, and rewrites, and rewrites; but also the fact that he regularly received opportunities to contribute nonfiction pieces to magazines and anthologies, and to give guest lectures, and they tended to pay real money, unlike his fiction, which garnered much praise but little cash over his career.

This parallel between the circumstances of their output is interesting; however, the correspondences between Valéry’s creative process and his primary artistic focus, and Gass’s, is what is truly significant. In his creative work, Valéry was almost exclusively interested in describing the workings of the mind, of consciousness; and developing complex artistic structures to reflect those workings. T. S. Eliot noted Valéry’s dismissiveness of the idea of inspiration as the font of poetic creation. In Eliot’s introduction to Valéry’s collection The Art of Poetry, he writes, “The insistence, in Valéry’s poetics, upon the small part played [by ‘inspiration’ . . .] and upon the subsequent process of deliberate, conscious, arduous labor, is a most wholesome reminder to the young poet” (xii). Eliot goes on to compare Valéry’s technique and the resulting work to that done by artists in other media, most notably music composers: “[Valéry] always maintained that assimilation Poetry to Music which was a Symbolist tenet” (xiv). James R. Lawler echoes Eliot when he writes that Valéry “makes much of the comparison of poetry to the sexual act, the organicity of the tree, the freedom of the dance, and the richness of music—especially that of Wagner” (x).

The wellspring of music composition as a source of structural principles for poetry (or highly poetic prose) is arguably the greatest correspondence between Valéry as artist and Gass as artist. Examples abound, but The Tunnel and Middle C offer the most radiant ones. For the The Tunnel Gass developed a highly synthetic structure based on Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s musical theory of a twelve-tone system. Consequently there are twelve sections or chapters, and in each Gass develops twelve primary themes or images. He said, “[T]hat is how I began working out the way the various themes come in and out. It’s layered that way too. . . .” (Kaposi 135). In The Tunnel, Gass’s methodology is difficult to discern because Gass gave it a “chaotic and wild” look while in fact it is, he said, “as tightly bound as a body in a corset” (134). He achieved the appearance of chaos by “deliberately dishevel[ing]” the narrative with “all kinds of other things like repetitions [and] contradictions.” He said, “[T]he larger structure must mimic human memory, human consciousness. It lies, it forgets and contradicts. It’s fragmentary, it doesn’t explain everything, doesn’t even know everything” (134). For Middle C, the use of the Schoenberg system is much more overt, with Skizzen, its protagonist, being a music professor whose specialty is Schoenberg and Skizzen’s obsession with getting a statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive just right. Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation: “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352). Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.

Let me return to another Valéry-Gass correspondence which I touched on earlier: their concern with the workings of the mind or, said differently, consciousness. Jackson Mathews, arguably the most herculean of Valéry’s translators into English, begins his introduction to Monsieur Teste with the statement that “Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that this pursuit led through man into the world” (vii). Valéry’s interest in the mind was present in his earliest published work, the essay on Leonardo’s method and, even more obviously, Monsieur Teste, that is, “Mr. Head” or “Mr. Brain as Organ of Observation” or something to that effect. However, it was during Valéry’s twenty-year “silence” that he delved into the phenomenon of consciousness most critically. Gass writes, “Valéry began keeping notebooks in earnest, rising at dawn every day like a priest at his observances to record the onset of consciousness, and devoting several hours then to the minutest study of his own mind” (“Paul Valéry” 163). As noted earlier, Gass fashioned The Tunnel, all 800 or so pages of it, to mimic the human mind in its intricate workings. In Middle C, Gass pays much attention to Skizzen’s thought processes, especially his copious writing, revising, critique of, and further revising of his statement about humans’ unworthiness for survival. Such concerns are everywhere in Gass’s work, including his most recently published, the collection of novellas and stories, Eyes. I would point in particular to the novella Charity, a challenging stream-of-consciousness narrative, all a single paragraph, that mercilessly bounces between the main character’s childhood and his present, and, chaotically, various times in between, all the while sorting through his feelings about the act of charity and how he came to feel about it as he does in the now of the story.

In the limited time remaining, I’ll turn to the correspondence between Valéry’s character Monsieur Teste and Gass’s Joseph Skizzen (though I think William Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel, has significant Teste-esque qualities as well). The convention of The Evening with Monsieur Teste is that the narrator is a friend of Edmond Teste’s, and he goes about attempting to describe his friend’s character. There is very little action per se, and as such almost nothing in the way of plot, in a conventional sense at least (very Gassian in that regard). He tells us that he came to “believe that Monsieur Teste had managed to discover laws of the mind we know nothing of. Certainly he must have devoted years to his research” (11). In Middle C, Joseph Skizzen is obsessed with what he calls his Inhumanity Museum, essentially a record, largely in the form of newspaper clippings and personal notes, of humans’ ceaseless cruelty to one another. The collection is associated with his ongoing struggle to word just so his statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive. Monsieur Teste becomes almost a recluse, desiring little contact with other people. He is married, but the narrator suggests that Monsieur and Madam Teste’s relationship is more platonic than passionate, due to Edmond’s preference for the intellectual over the emotional. Similarly, Skizzen never marries in Middle C, and in fact never has sex—he flees as if terrified at the two attempts to seduce him, both by older women, in the novel. Ultimately he ends up living with his mother in a house on the campus where he teaches music history and theory, his few “pleasures” consisting of listening to Schoenberg, assembling his Inhumanity Museum, and revising his pet statement. What is more, Teste’s friend describe Edmond’s understanding of “the importance of what might be called human plasticity. He had investigated its mechanics and its limits. How deeply he must have reflected on his own malleability!” (11-12). Skizzen’s malleability is central to his persona in Middle C. He goes through several name changes, moving from Austria to England to America, and eventually fabricates a false identity, one which includes that he has an advanced degree in musical composition, when in fact his knowledge of music is wholly self-taught. One of the reasons he gravitates toward Schoenberg as his special interest is because of the composer’s obscurity and therefore the decreased likelihood that another Schoenberg scholar would be able to question Skizzen’s understanding of the Austrian’s theories. But over time Skizzen molds himself into a genuine expert on Schoenberg and a respected teacher at the college—though his fear of being found out as a fraud haunts him throughout the novel.

To utter the cliché that I have only scratched the surface of this topic would be a generous overstatement. Perhaps I have eyed the spot where one may strike the first blow. Yet I hope that I have demonstrated the Valéry-Gass scholarly vein to be a rich one, and that an even richer one is the Valéry-Rilke-Gass vein. A couple of years ago I hoped to edit a series of critical studies on Gass, and I put out the call for abstracts far and wide; however, I had to abandon the project as I only received one email of inquiry about the project, and then not even an abstract followed. Nevertheless, I will continue my campaign to bring attention to Gass’s work in hopes that others will follow me up the hill, or, better still, down the tunnel. Meanwhile, if interested, you can find several papers on Gass’s work at my blog.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Eliot, T. S. Introduction. The Art of Poetry. By Paul Valéry. Trans. Denise Folliot. New York: Pantheon, 1958. vii-xxiv. Print.

Gass, William H. Charity. Eyes: Novellas and Short Stories. New York: Knopf, 2015. 77-149.  Print.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life. 1970. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. xi-xiii. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. 1999. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

—. The Tunnel. 1995. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2007. Print.

—. The World Within the Word. 1978. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

Lawler, James R. Introduction. Paul Valéry: An Anthology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. vii-xxiii. Print.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 46-55. [online]

Mathews, Jackson. Introduction. Monsieur Teste. By Valéry. Trans. Jackson Mathews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. vii-ix. Print.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. 1896. Trans. Jackson Mathew. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Notes on images: The photo of Paul Valéry was found at amoeba.com via Google image. The photo of William H. Gass was found at 3ammagazine.com via Google image.

 

Interview with Grant Tracey: Final Stanzas

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 1, 2015

I’d known of Grant Tracey and his writing for years, because of his editing of the North American Review, but I had never met Grant before this past June. A few weeks previous to our meeting, in late April, my wife Melissa and I were visiting Cedar Falls, Iowa, the home of the University of Northern Iowa, where Grant teaches; and I was sitting in on a creative writing class being taught by my friend and Twelve Winters Press author Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger, when Jeremy mentioned that his colleague, Grant Tracey, had a short story collection that he was interested in publishing, but he was disenchanted with the process of looking for a small-press publisher. In fact, even though Grant had published three previous collections of fiction, he was considering self-publishing this new book.

Final Stanzas - front cover

I realized immediately that a great opportunity for my press, Twelve Winters, had presented itself, out of the blue as it were. I told Jeremy that I was very much interested in looking at Grant’s collection, and he put us in touch via email. Grant graciously sent me a collection to read through, in a couple of installments, both published and unpublished stories (seventeen pieces all together, I believe). Then in June Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, and we arranged to meet Grant for coffee on our first morning there. By that time I’d read Grant’s terrific stories and very much wanted to bring out some sort of collection. So when we got together at Cup of Joe, it was just a matter of going over the contract details and possibilities for bringing out the book in print, digital and audio.

Grant decided on eleven stories for the collection, ten previously published and one new story. I asked the Press’s faithful and talented editors Pamm Collebrusco and Adam Nicholson to read the collection, which was still untitled. As luck would have it, the Press’s publishing schedule opened up for the fall, and we could bring out the collection quite quickly, especially in the world of publishing, where it may take years for an accepted book to see the light of day. By early August, Pamm and Adam had sent their editorial notes to Grant. We were getting close to having a finished manuscript, but the collection still didn’t have a title. Grant didn’t want to use one of the stories’ titles for the collection’s title, but rather he wanted some phrase or image in the stories to suggest the title. I thought the phrase “final stanzas” from the story “Turnstiles” would be perfect–and Grant also liked it.

On August 24, Final Stanzas was released.

It’s become a Press tradition that I interview the authors upon the release of their books, so I sent Grant some interview questions, and what follows are his unedited responses. I think you’ll enjoy the interview almost as much as the delightful collection itself.

Grant Tracey 1

What’s the time span of the writing of these eleven stories? In other words, how old is the oldest story, and how recent is the most recently written?

The oldest story in here is “Dead Flowers.” I wrote that in 2009 right around the time my last collection Lovers and Strangers was coming out with Pocol. It was a story inspired by my troubled relationship with my father and a lot of things that went down during my childhood. I thought I had moved past them, but writing the story proved to me that I hadn’t. Anyway, that’s the oldest. The newest in terms of publication date is “Ossining, 1918.” Aethlon printed that just last June. However, I had been shopping that story around for three to four years.

The newest in terms of composition is “Written on the Sky” (I wrote it about a year and a half ago and it appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern) and “Still the Bomber,” which I revised yet again, just weeks before sending it to you. “Ossining” was an important story because it was the first one where I really felt like I was playing with time. I was free to move into the past and flash-forward into the future whenever I wanted because the narrative sensibilities were that of an artist, James Cagney. “Written” was a voice-driven piece. I’m not as comfortable in first-person—I like the control of limited third—but this was a very autobiographical story, and I felt the voice was real and honest.

It’s funny that you mentioned autobiography a couple of times. At least in one of your stories you refer to a real-life colleague at UNI (Dr. Julie Husband). I trust she’s all right with being a character in your fiction. Usually novelists and short-story writers cast at least a thin veil over themselves and friends and family. Why did you decide to dispense with the veil altogether in this case, and is this a technique you’ve used with some regularity in your fiction?

Two reasons why I dispensed with the veil: one, I respect and admire Dr. Husband so I wanted to give her a shout-out; and two, all that stuff about Philip Roth in the story I got from reading an article of hers on the writer, so I wanted to, in a sly way, acknowledge that. And yes, I asked her permission. She was amused. Anyway, many of the stories are artistic creations, imagined probabilities, not biographies, but two or three come pretty close to my life or people I know. The second story in the collection, “Seeing Red, Feeling Blue,” was inspired by the relationship between my sister and mother. The event never happened but some of the sensibilities in that story derive from the complex dynamics of their love for each other. In “Written on the Sky” the mother takes the son out of school to see Woody Allen movies. My mother did that. She somehow always knew when I was struggling and needed to get away from all the crap that goes on in junior high. But the rest of that story is a leap of the creative imagination. Yes, I had a neighbor who I had a crush on. And yes she liked to sun bathe, but we never hung out and discussed theatre. She did say I looked like Johnny Cash, however. Oh, and the scene with all the Playboy playmates fastened to the wall? That did happen. My father took me to a bachelor pad where I couldn’t tell you what the paint color a certain wall was. But all kidding aside, if there are any connections to real people in these stories, they are for the most part accidents or composites.

The actor James Cagney seems to be a hero, or at least a person of particular interest to you. You’ve published critical work on him and chose a quote from one of his movie roles for the book’s epigraph, as well as his being the main character in two of the stories (plus in a third, a character has named his dog Cagney). What about James Cagney do you find so fascinating or perhaps even inspiring?

I think he’s one of the most authentic actors of all time. Cagney had a simple approach to acting: plant your feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth. And that’s him. I also love his energy, the way he moves. He talks fast, has a territorial lean, raises an eyebrow with all-knowing awareness, and plays things big. So many actors, especially working today, go for the less-is-more, naturalism style of acting. Underplay, underplay, underplay—Steve McQueen style. That’s cool. But Cagney was like Orson Welles once said, “a thousand firecrackers going off all at once.” I also found the contradiction between his tough-guy persona and the quiet, shy person he was off screen fascinating. Cagney tired of playing the tough guy and wanted to branch out, but it was difficult. Audiences loved the tough-talking wise guy, but I’m attracted to the man who wanted more from his art. Earlier, I called him an artist and he was. He took the craft of acting seriously, read Nobel Prize-winning authors, danced, painted, and saw art as essential to living a better, richer life.

Besides the two included in Final Stanzas, are there other James Cagney stories that you’ve written? Are these stories fictionalized biographies, or wholly made up tales based on your perception of Cagney as a person?

I haven’t written any other Cagney stories, not yet, but I plan to. The two stories here are tales based on my perception of Cagney as a person. Tony Kushner, when I met him at [University of Northern Iowa], said about Abraham Lincoln (whom he’d just written a screenplay about) or Jackie Gleason (whom I was writing some stories about) that it’s okay to take imaginative leaps from the historical record as long as you don’t alter the personality or reality of the person. Stay true to the character. I like that way of thinking about it.

Both of the Cagney stories featured in Final Stanzas were grounded in some reality. Cagney was a catcher on a local baseball team that did travel and played at Sing-Sing. I took that reality and blended it with an event that happed to me. In the late 1970s, my parents ran a group home, and the social worker overseeing things arranged a softball game at a local prison. Our team consisted of a bunch of group home parents and their kids, and I played catcher against a prison team. My dad was on the field that day with us and during the game kept looking up at the turrets and guards and machine guns and shook his head, mumbling, “I hope we get out of here. Alive that is.” He was joking and not joking at the same time. I think he was feeling mighty claustrophobic.

Anyway, I took two realities and blended them into fiction. Cagney’s father in that story is, in a way, modeled on my father. Both were alcoholics, both loved their sons deeply. For “Faraway Girl” I wanted to write a kind of weird love story that was also a detective yarn of sorts. In 1932, to protest the roles Warners was giving him, Cagney walked off the studio lot and went back home to New York. What follows is my imagined probabilities of what he might have done during his “vacation.” The story and the characterization of Melissa Coors is also inspired by Shirley MacLaine’s dynamic performance in Some Came Running and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the list stuff that Missy is told to follow versus Jimmy Gatz’s lists and desires to re-imagine himself).

When we first started talking about the Press bringing out this collection, I believe the manuscript you shared with me consisted of twelve previously published stories; then a day or two later you emailed me five newer, unpublished stories to consider as well. Ultimately you decided on ten published stories, plus “Still the Bomber.” Can you describe your thought process as to how you arrived at Final Stanzas in its final form?

Yes. There are six previously published stories that aren’t in the collection, including one, “Bright Lights,” that I’m quite proud of, but I didn’t think it fit in with the arc of what Final Stanzas became. I realized as I was putting the order of the stories together that much of this collection is, not to sound too theoretical, about the interface of life and art, how one informs the other. It’s a circle, a perpetual feedback system: we get meaning from and impose meaning on art. And all of the stories are, in some way, about seeking out an authentic existence: whether it’s a college student trying to create a student film and live life his way (“The Hermit Finds Solace”) or an actor fighting for better scripts and trying to rectify things with his teenage daughter (“Still the Bomber”). For all of the characters in these stories living in a world of art matters because it’s what sustains us.

You teach film studies in addition to creative writing at UNI. How has your love of and critical analysis of film informed your story writing? What cinema-informed lessons have you brought to your teaching of creative writing?

My experience in community theatre has improved my writing. I’ve acted in over twenty plays, most recently taking on the role of Peter in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. What I love about acting is making the hot choice, the risky choice, and that’s what I try to do in my writing, flip the moment, find a contrary impulse, and never let the characters on the page be defined around one truth. Humans are way too complex for that. Secondly, from acting I get the central question to all art: “Where’s the love?” Stories to me are about love, how we respond to and live with or without it. Right now I’m working on a craft essay entitled, “On Method Writing,” in which I look at how to write more meaningful dialogue in fiction. Writer Ron Carlson has argued that in dialogue characters speak from their own space, freed up from the controlling voice and narrative point-of-view of the writer. Yes! But how do we create real meaning within that space?

Looking at the films of John Cassavetes, the writing of Julie Orringer and Clifford Odets, I explore how well-written dialogue creates trigger words, key bits, that characters respond to. This leads to beat changes, shifts in a scene, escalating or ameliorating the tension. As an actor, when I learn lines, I don’t necessarily focus on the last few words or “cue” of the other actor’s utterance. Instead, I ask what’s the intent behind his or her words that force a response from me. What do I want? What’s emerging here? I circle the word the other actor speaks that elicits a response or new tactic from me. That word is my trigger. For example: character A says, “You never do the dishes. I came home and this place was a mess.” Character B, me: “I didn’t know you wanted me to do the dishes.” Character A: “What do you think I wanted? I can’t write when the place looks like this.” Anyway, the trigger words here: “dishes,” “wanted” and “write.” This is a simple example, but Sidney Lumet said that acting is a verb, and I think each time we write a line of dialogue we should asks what verb best describes this utterance. Am I shaming, chastising, praising, cajoling the other person? If we look at the small sample of dialogue above us, Character A first scolds. Character B attempts to placate. Character A responds to that choice with greater anger, shaming.

If your dialogue in a scene isn’t working, change a verb, an intention. Choose a different one and re-write the line of dialogue accordingly.

You turned the story “According to Chelsea” into a stage play, which you directed in what you called a “guerilla theater” production in 2014. Talk about that experience, including the process of transforming a short story into a dramatic script.

It was amazing. There’s nothing like hearing words you wrote performed by an actor, because that actor infuses the words with life and makes them his or her own. It’s a truly collaborative experience and suddenly you realize that the art really is bigger than you. As a writer you surrender what you wrote over to the actors and engage with the choices they make and what they bring to the project. Of course to write the play I had to really expand upon a rather short short story, writing extensive dialogue scenes and developing a subplot involving Wally Bober’s brother Manny and their Zeyda. In Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplays there are always two main plot lines. Take a look at Marty. There’s the love plot: Marty and Clara. And then there’s the subplot: the in-laws needing their own space, struggling with Marty’s aunt, and asking Marty and his mother to take her in. From this subplot, emerges the desire of Marty’s mother to discourage her son’s love for Clara. I often like to have two narrative strands, like Chayefsky, going on in my stories, but for the play I really developed those two plot lines.

If a century from now the world only knows Grant Tracey, short-story writer by one story from this collection, which story would you want it to be, and why that one?

That’s a tough one. I’m fond of “Ossining, 1918” because, like I said earlier, it was a real breakthrough in terms of the art of time in fiction. I also love “Still the Bomber” because I struggled with that story for five years and found a way to tell a story with a lot of half-scenes: nine or so. “Written on the Sky” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize so I guess I should pick that one, but I’m not going to. I do like the ease with which I slipped into a first-person voice there, but my favorite of all in the collection would be the lead story and the one the book’s title comes from, “Turnstiles.” The story is personal, in the sense that it’s set in a part of Toronto my mother grew up in (and she was raised above a mom and pop Variety store). I am of Macedonian-Roma origins, and those are my grandparents in that story. “Turnstiles” also comes closest to Bernard Malamud in terms of its narrative telling voice (and Malamud is my favorite short-story writer, and I’ve always wanted to write a Malamud–type story. I was thinking of the Assistant and an early story by John Cheever the whole time I was composing this). “Turnstiles” wrote itself quickly. It was one of those rare gifts for a writer where it was just there. Yes, I revised for language but the narrative arc emerged fully upon the first draft. It has hockey in it (my favorite sport) and ends with an image that is original and kind of cool. I just really, really like it. I realize this is a personal response, but hey, that’s how I roll. It’s the one I want to be remembered by.

You’ve acted in several community-theater productions, and in fact this past summer you were on the stage again. Therefore, you were keenly interested when I talked about the potential of creating an audiobook edition of Final Stanzas for the Press. What do you have in mind for the audiobook?

I think I’d like to have members of the local theatre community read some of the stories. I’d read 3–4 of them and surrender the bulk of the project to other voices, getting actor pals to read. The variety of voices I think might enhance the work and make the audio experience a rich one for our listeners. I’ve already got the green light from five community actors. They’re ready.

It was in essence dumb luck that the Press got the opportunity to bring out this terrific book. Our mutual friend Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger mentioned to me offhandedly that you had a collection you’d like to publish, but you were considering doing it as a self-published project because you didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding a publisher for it. Is that more or less where you were with this book when my ears perked up, and I asked Jeremy to put us in touch? If so, why did the process of finding a publisher seem so unappealing to you? Or, if not unappealing, how would you describe your feelings of looking for a publisher?

Honestly, I was burned out. At AWP, one of the panels I went to said if you want to find an agent or a small-press publisher you must have a web presence. Well, I don’t Facebook, tweet tweet, or blog. I have no web presence. I’d rather be writing fiction than documenting my life for others to read. Platform was the word they kept saying, platform. Well, I do have a platform, I’m Fiction Editor at the North American Review, but I don’t have a presence or platform online. So I was discouraged. I wasn’t willing to change. I’m not comfortable talking about myself. My work, yes. I tried entering contests, was a finalist at Snake Nation, but that was about it. I wasn’t getting a nibble. So I was thinking I’ll just self-publish. I’m a full professor. It’s not like I’m fighting for a promotion. And most of the stories had already been accepted in small magazines. But I’m glad I waited and Jeremy put us on touch. I was extremely happy that when I met you and we drank coffee together, you said I didn’t have to have a big web presence. You allowed me to be myself and I appreciate that. What I wanted more than anything was to work with an editor in producing a product that enhances the stories. I’m an old-fashioned, retro writer. I admire stories that have a strong narrative arc, explore the human heart and questions of love, and seek out authenticity. And working with Twelve Winters and you has really brought the stories to life. I’m proud of the look and feel to Final Stanzas and all that you’ve done to make it such a rewarding experience. The cover art; the inside font; the headers: wow. And I’ve never had my work copyedited the way Adam and Pamm did. It was awesome and a little embarrassing. I couldn’t believe all the errors they caught and I’m grateful that they did. A big shout-out to them!!

Finally, tell us about your current writing project, which you describe as a crime novel set in 1965 Toronto?

I’m a big fan of detective stories. But as you probably guessed I like 1950s and 60s crime noir, stuff that’s edgy and doesn’t rely on CSI to solve its murders. But as much I love the genre I’m troubled by all the misogyny that abounds. So I wanted to write something that was a nod to the retro crime noir antecedents, without necessarily subscribing to the darker elements of sexism. Moreover, I wanted to find a voice that was unique: literary but also hard-boiled. What I admire most about Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Richard Stark is that you can tell their prose style apart from all the rest. Chandler is a romantic coated with loneliness. Similes abound. Spillane, especially in the early years, revs up the anger, aggression, and male hysteria. And Stark. He’s bare and spare, full of a professional’s restraint, but every now and then he gives you a mouthful of glass.

The plot to my novel: Former Toronto Maple Leafs left-winger and now private-eye, Hayden Fuller, didn’t expect to be back in Maple Leaf Gardens, let alone mixing it up with a consortium of corrupt NHL owners and ruthless gangsters in the burgeoning permissive society of Toronto, 1965. When Cathy Stabulas goes missing, Hayden’s on the case, confronting his past while moving forward in a much different game, one involving murder. Cheap Amusements is a 65,000-word crime novel with a skate in the world of hockey (sports figures are conspicuously absent from two-fisted tales) and another in the violent undertow of the American hardboiled. The narrative is full of double crosses, liars and lies, and deadly deceptions (double twists abound). Hayden, like a pinball cushioning off bumpers, bounces from one encounter to another. Sure he’s a smart-ass, but he’s caught up in a whirl of irrational chaos and hopes—like that thudding pinball—to stay in the game. Oh, and his name? A composite of two of my favorite noir icons: actor Sterling Hayden and director Samuel Fuller.

Grant Tracey is the fiction editor of the North American Review and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film studies and creative writing. He has published nearly fifty short stories, as well as three previous collections of fiction. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

Interview with Lynette D’Amico: Road Trip

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 30, 2015

Twelve Winters Press doesn’t solicit submissions as a general rule. Sometimes we’ll have a call for submissions for a special project, but otherwise, as a publisher, I see myself as more of a hunter-gatherer. That is, I keep my eyes and ears open for interesting projects, and when I pick up a scent, I track it down to see if it pans out.  I believe it was in the summer of 2014 that I received the Quarterly West newsletter which included an announcement of the winner and finalists of its annual novella contest. One of the finalists was “Road Trip” by Lynette D’Amico. There were several finalists, and I’m not sure why that one stood out to me. I’m a big fan of the road trip motif — I’ve taught Homer’s Odyssey many, many times, as I have tales from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and I’m a fan of Kerouac’s On the Road, and McCarthy’s The Road . . . and so on. So maybe it’s as simple as that.

Road Trip - front cover for DIGITAL

I went about tracking down this Lynette D’Amico person on the Web (which took a little doing), and introduced myself and Twelve Winters via email. She responded, and come to find out, her novella had been three times a bridesmaid. Prior to the Quarterly West finalist finish, her little book also had been a finalist for the Paris Literary Prize and, as part of a collection, for the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She had some other impressive writing credentials, including placing a piece with The Gettysburg Review, “Ashes, Ashes,” that had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She said in her email that being contacted by a publisher took some of the sting out of her third close-but-not-quite finish, and she agreed to send me the manuscript.

I was blown away by her novella — its complexity, its intricate structure, its mixing of genres, its main characters who are thoroughly lovable in spite of their glaring flaws, and its offbeat humor. I very much wanted to bring this strange little book into the world. We began our negotiations. I entertained the idea of bringing “Road Trip” out as part of a collection, but ultimately we agreed that it should stand on its own as a novella. The story is highly intertextual, so I liked the idea of perhaps mixing in yet another mode of communication in the form of illustrations of some sort (at least, I think it was my idea — maybe Lynette suggested it first . . . I could easily be persuaded she did). Ultimately, Lynette found some photographs from the Wisconsin Historical Society and from a book titled Death of the Dream that she wanted to include in the book. The odd and often haunting photographs definitely added another layer to her already multi-layered novella.

I enlisted the aid of a couple of the Press’s loyal editors to read the manuscript and work with Lynette to finalize it for publication; then beginning in about March of this year I re-entered the process, and Lynette and I went about creating Road Trip in its final form, in print and digital editions. (Lynette is at work on an audio version of Road Trip as well.) On June 22, 2015, the novella entered the world. I sent Lynette some interview questions about her book and her process, and what follows are her unedited responses. SPOILER ALERT: At times the interview drifts into details of the novella you may not want to know before reading it (I wouldn’t have).

Lynette-6

The travel narrative obviously has a rich history. The Bible is filled with travel stories. There’s Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, with your own book perhaps being more closely related to Kerouac’s On the Road. Why do you think the travel narrative has been so attractive to storytellers, and what specifically attracted you to it for Road Trip?

Isn’t it a version of the travel narrative that we all see ourselves as coming from somewhere on our way to somewhere else? Well, maybe that’s a version of the travel narrative written by white men of a particular social class. When I was 21 or 22, I tried to wrangle a posse of girlfriends to drive from a first-ring suburb of St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. My friends wanted to bake on a beach, so I wrote to chambers of commerce, collected maps, a sleeping bag, and hit the road alone. I made it as far as Taos before I exhausted my credit limit and my own capacity for adventure—sleeping and not sleeping in my car with all the doors locked at state parks.

The notion of the road trip immediately inspires a sense of the unknown; it has its own engine—we’re heading out from Point A to Point B, or to points unknown. I needed a trajectory for Road Trip, something that would propel the story forward, and place the characters of Myra and Pinkie in time and space, and a literal road trip does the trick.

There’s a line in a story by Paul Yoon, “So That They Do Not Hear Us,” that I get caught on, “. . . there was a time she had departed and was now wishing to return to.” This nostalgia for returning is also a part of the mythology of a road trip: we want to go back to where we started, and the inherent sadness of the road trip for Myra and Pinkie is that even if they get back to where they started, even if they return, nothing will ever be the same again.

Some of the travel narratives I mentioned have a significant supernatural element in them—as does your novella. What do you think the connection is between travel and the supernatural?

Travel removes us from the familiar. In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she says that “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” The expectation of the travel narrative is exploration of the unknown; to turn a corner or come into a clearing, where “I have never seen this place before” and the unexpected becomes possible.

Flimic references that inform Road Trip include David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, the Cohen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Wizard of Oz, and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. And by “inform,” I mean I paid attention that if you’re on a road trip, something’s gotta happen along the way, and I like it when the something that happens along the way is a little weird, or incorporates unreal elements.

A few years back my spouse and I were staying in a cabin in the Adirondacks. We woke up early the morning we were due to leave and rather than go back to sleep, we packed the car and got on the road before dawn. There were no cars on the road, no lights; it was foggy and misty, and all of a sudden we saw a one-armed figure in the middle of the road. Polly was driving. We both screamed and Polly, who has the reflexes of an athlete, swerved and braked hard. We looked around and there was no one on the road. We kept driving. Did we really see a one-armed man on a foggy road? And where did he go? In writing, and perhaps in life, anything is possible on the road—one-armed hitchhikers, or red-headed hitchhikers in one-piece bathing suits and flip-flops pulling doughnuts and mini-bottles of vodka out of a bottomless purse.

The structure of Road Trip is decidedly nonlinear. You have several characters embarking on various storylines, and the reader constantly shifts between these storylines, as well as back and forth temporally. How did this rather frenetic structure come about? Was it planned early on in the composition, or did it develop more organically while you were writing Road Trip?

Nothing was planned! I so rarely work with any kind of intentionality unless I’m writing an essay, but even then I leave plenty of space for discovery. Road Trip started as one straight-line short story called “No Brakes”—the story of Myra and Pinkie—more or less. It was a big sprawling mess, but from the one draft I had the last words, “no brakes,” and in subsequent drafts I wrote towards that line. It was always fragmented, but I had sections in it about Ed Gein, the Plainfield, Wisconsin, killer who is the model for Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, which didn’t make the cut and sections called “What Does My Mother Have to Do with This” that were kind of funny stories about my mother talking about death, but their destiny was foretold by their heading. Then my first semester in grad school I worked with the brilliant Kevin (Mc) McIlvoy, who taught me one simple thing about braiding story chords (I don’t mean that he told me one thing; he told me a million things, but I actually managed to hold onto this one right thing): He referred to the turns in the long version of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos: “You thought we were entering a pond? No. You thought we were entering a lake? No. Here: the ocean. The ocean: hear.” His comment translated into some kind of circular, touch-and-go movement in the story. Mc encouraged me to think about fragmentation­—breaking blocks of text into small islands to introduce a rhythmic discontinuity and dynamic disjunction into the narrative. To my surprise, as I broke the main narrative down and split the secondary narrative into discrete modules, I was able to see the shape of the story. In pulling everything apart, the story came together for me.

Myra Stark (the narrator) and Pinkie have a complex relationship. What do you think is at the core of their friendship? Are you basing this complex friendship on any real-life models?

In all the conversations and discussions I’ve had about this book, I’ve never tried to explain the relationship between Myra and Pinkie, except maybe to myself.  Early feedback I got on the story was that Myra was so mean to Pinkie wasn’t I worried that readers wouldn’t like her? I also heard that Pinkie was beyond believable infuriating. Beyond believable in a story with ghosts and an animated butter and cheese doll? Well, it doesn’t hurt my feelings if readers don’t like Myra or Pinkie. My interest is in creating complex, difficult characters that readers want to argue with or talk to on a long road trip. My interest is that readers keep reading.

I had in mind a complicated relationship between two women, a relationship if not as clear-cut as lovers, then maybe a friendship betrayed, or a friendship of history and habit and conflicted feelings. In my own life, I’ve had friendships that blew up, I’ve disappointed and been disappointed by friends. I wrote pages and pages, which is my way of thinking, trying to discover a relationship that existed beyond estrangement and death. What I discovered in the process was that I wasn’t really interested in Myra and Pinkie making peace. Theirs was a relationship that would extend in its contentiousness beyond death. One of my models for Myra and Pinkie’s relationship was Sula Peace and Nel Wright from Toni Morrison’s Sula. Sula is a devastating novel about the relationship between two black women from the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The story follows Sula and Nel from the 1920s as young girls, then young women; their falling apart, and through the death of the title character, which corresponds with the slow decline of the black community they come from. When Sula is ill and alone, Nel visits her and asks her a question she had been struggling with since the friends had ceased being friends after Sula slept with Nel’s husband:

“I was good to you, Sula, why don’t that matter?” Sula turned her head away from the boarded window. . . . “It matters, Nel, but only to you. Not to anybody else. Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”

“Being good to somebody is just like being mean to something. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.” That line is at the heart of the relationship between Myra and Pinkie.

Road Trip was originally part of a collection (which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2012). How is Road Trip similar to and different from other pieces in that collection?

Other stories in the collection, although not all the stories, use similar nonreal elements as appear in Road Trip, such as ghosts, and a couple of the stories try to be funny. I think a problem with the collection is that Road Trip was in it. The other stories are about families: mothers and daughters, sisters, and the relationships you are born into versus the relationships you choose. Road Trip might have been too much of its own animal to work with the collection.

For a long time the novella, as a form, was “persona non grata” in the publishing world—too long to be published as a story, and too short to be taken as seriously as a novel. But the novella’s status seems to have improved in recent years. Major houses are publishing them, and some have even fared well in national contests competing right alongside full-length novels. How do you personally feel about the novella form, compared to story and novel writing?

I love the novella form. I went around for a while pitching a book that was going to be comprised of three novellas! That plan fell by the wayside due to lack of interest—not on my part but on the part of every publishing venue that I approached—but I like to keep a novella percolating on the back burner, something to dip into from time to time. I’m still new to novel writing. I’m writing a novel, but I am a little shy about saying that I’ve written a novel yet. Time will tell. The only form that I feel sure about before I write it is the short story. Sure, in that I usually know if a short story is going to be a short story when I start writing, although I’m open to surprises too.

The most obvious way to differentiate novellas from stories and novels is, of course, by word count, which is typically in the 20,000 to 40,000 word range—but word count is only one indicator of what a novella is and it doesn’t address form. Author Debra Spark, who I had the great fortune to work with at Warren Wilson, has an essay about the novella in her book on the craft of writing called Strange Attractions. She refers to Howard Nemerov’s essay “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel,” and says that novellas “must represent not simply a compression but a corresponding rhythmic intensification, and not just for plot—which we expect from most fiction—but for design.” Rhythmic intensification to me means exerting pressure on every element: language, sentences, paragraphs, which is compounded by and propelled by tone. It’s a process of distillation. The best way I can think of to illustrate what I’m talking about is with these few novellas and short novels that are particularly important to me:

The Body Artist, Don DeLillo.

I am a freak for DeLillo and then I go through periods where I can’t read another word of his. The Body Artist is a drifty, dreamy book with the thinnest of plots and the first fifty pages or so is this excruciating chapter of a domestic scene that is written kind of like in real time. The book is like a dream. I love The Falling Man by DeLillo too.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I reread or listen to Gatsby two or three times a year. I would like to write a collection of essays from lines from Gatsby. Every line opens a world.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

Another drifty, dreamy novella, and the first chapter in which the main character tells his own death in the context of the house he built falling down around him is brilliant.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

The main character of Train Dreams is opaque and unreflective, but Johnson evokes a whole way of life and period of history through the character Grainier—of logging and the woods and labor and heartbreak in Idaho in the early part of the twentieth century. I love this book as an example of how to tell a story through characterization.

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell

I like my fiction a little slapdash and hard-edged, language-driven or image-driven or just voice-y—funny, snappy voice-y. So Long, See You Tomorrow isn’t that kind of book. It’s such a quiet, meditative book, but I read it, then listened to the audio file of the author William Maxwell reading it, which is an extraordinary experience, then I read it again. And maybe a few more times. I’ve heard the book referred to as a nonfiction novel because the first half of the book is written like a memoir in which the author William Maxwell is the central character. He tells an account of a murder on a tenant farm outside of Lincoln, Illinois, the small Midwestern town where Maxwell was born and lived until he started high school. The second half of the book is a fictionalized account of the murder from a third-person omniscient perspective. I love that this book tells the same story many different ways.

Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje

The subject of the novella is a fictionalized account of the life of New Orleans jazz trumpet player Buddy Bolden. The novel incorporates point of view jump cuts, lists, lyrics, descriptions of photographs, and invented and historical interviews in an attempt to enter the character and historical figure of Buddy Bolden. The presentation is disjointed and imagistic and opens up whole worlds.

Why Did I Ever, Mary Robison

Funny as hell. And sad. Written in 536 little sections. Not an extra word.

Road Trip must have had a fairly long and adventurous trip of its own before being published. Could you talk about your efforts to get it into print, and what kind of a journey that was for you as a writer, including emotionally.

Over the past several years, Road Trip was a finalist in a few well-considered contests—always a bridesmaid, as they say. Every time I got on one of those close-but-no-cigar lists, an agent or two would contact me and ask “what else you got?” Nobody was interested in a novella, or in the novella as part of a collection of short fiction. I think Road Trip didn’t really work in a collection. If the collection had won some prize, that might have made a difference, but generally, what I heard from agents was that they wanted a novel, and there’s nothing like the attention of a few publishing professionals to completely derail my writing practice and sidetrack me from the work, which is ultimately what matters. So, I tried to keep my head down and just keep focused on the page.

I had stopped submitting Road Trip to journals—the few that are open to considering novella-length work—but I’d gear up and send it around to the couple of novella contests that come around every year. After an appearance on the finalist list for the 2014 Quarterly West Novella contest (which I lost to Nathan Poole, a fellow Warren Wilson alum, which by the way, if you’re a fan of the novella or just gorgeous writing, read his winning novella Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost or his collection of short fiction from Sarabande, Father, Brother, Keeper), you contacted me. As I think I said to you in my initial response, nothing takes the sting out of losing like a query from a publisher. I was impressed with Twelve Winters’ dedication to independent publishing, your commitment to publishing literary titles that might be a little off the beaten track, as well as your plans to expand the press’s fiction list. Let me just say, too, that I have a lot of writer friends who operate like literary hoarders. Playwrights who are holding out and holding out—they don’t want their work to be produced at a small local theater in case Steppenwolf or The Public wants to consider their play, writers who have their marketing plans in place before they finish a first draft. The upshot is an unproduced play (or an unpublished book) sitting in a drawer or on a computer file. I started writing later in life, and besides feeling the pressure of age in a youthful field, I want my work to be in the world. I liked that Twelve Winters is an entrepreneurial endeavor. I liked that you are a reasonable guy who is interested in working with his authors to make the best books possible. I liked that you were willing to take a chance on my weird, sad-funny novella. I think it’s worked out.

How did a Midwesterner with “a prairie eye” end up in Boston? Does your writing tend to focus on the Midwest, or do you sometimes find your East Coast environment an appropriate setting for your fiction?

I lived a lifetime in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Then my spouse, who works in theatre, got a job offer in Chicago. While she was in Chicago interviewing, my mother died. We sold our house, I quit my job, and we moved three months later.

After kicking me around for a year or so, Chicago became my best friend. I came to think of Chicago as my place. And then we moved again. To Boston, following Polly’s career again. We’ve been here now for three years. Boston has been a culture shock, more so even than the traffic in Chicago, where I drove for three years without ever making a left turn. There’s the cost of housing in Boston and the contrast with all the hardscrabble Massachusetts hill towns and then all these tiny, tight New England states. I can drive for twenty minutes and cross three state lines. I miss having an uninterrupted view. I miss driving for hours and hours and the unchanging landscape. I miss parking. To find my place here, I’m considering the ocean, which is right across the street from where we live in South Boston. I’ve lived with Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, both beloved to me, but the ocean requires a different relationship. I haven’t written anything yet about the East Coast, beyond ranting emails, but I likely will.

Could you talk about your writing process? Are you someone who consistently follows a routine, or do you write more in fits and starts as ideas and inspiration come to you?

I try to write everyday, which some days is more aspirational than realistic.

I think of it as exercise—another aspirational pursuit. If I don’t have a couple hours to write during the day, then I at least try to engage my current project in some way—through research, which can include reading, watching movies, listening to podcasts, music, eating whole boxes of dry cereal and bags of chips—I’ll use anything. Of course having an open-ended definition of research sometimes means that I lose days on the internet reading about how to frame a door, or birds of the prairie, or just googling writer bios in publications that have rejected me and comparing their lives to my own.

What are your current writing/creative projects?

I’m presently finishing a novel called The Third Twin, which is about renditions of home, how to make a home, homesickness, homelessness. It might be a reaction to moving around so much. Myra Stark appears in The Third Twin too. I also have a collection of short fiction called Below the Surface.

You’re a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the escalating number of MFA programs, and whether or not they actually help someone to become a better writer and establish a career as a writer, etc. What are your thoughts on the “MFA question”? How did Warren Wilson and its instructors nurture (or hinder) you as a writer?

I spent years trying to write over weekends, or in one-week or two-week increments—my allotted vacation time—or early in the morning or late at night, between working full-time. When I met Polly, I was introduced to the work of some of the best theater artists in the country—Lisa D’Amour, Deborah Stein, Kirk Lynn, Dominic Orlando, Sherry Kramer. My proximity to the world of theater and playwriting allowed me a fuller understanding of what it means to be an artist and the odds against gaining any kind of recognition or audience for your work. It was the example of many of these theater artists that pushed me to consider what I was doing with my own writing and what it meant to pursue a career as a writer. I saw the value of formal training in my chosen field, the necessity of credentials, and the importance of being connected to an academic institution or a professional organization. I decided to pursue an MFA. Writer friends, who had gone back to school later in life, recommended low-residency MFA programs.

My MFA program was a great gift to myself. Since I had been making my living as a writer in advertising and marketing communications, I came into the program thinking that I really didn’t have much to learn. It took one residency to disabuse me of that particular delusion. I listened to James Longenbach deliver a lecture on the excess of poetry to show how excess can be used to heighten a poem’s meaning, citing examples from Ezra Pound’s Canto 74, Emily Dickinson’s “The vastest earthly day,” John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and my head blew off. I realized I didn’t know anything. But I knew the difference between inspiration, a first draft, and material that was ready for an audience. I didn’t take rejection personally. I trusted my skills and I was prepared to start over every day. With the help of brilliant mentors and an intentionality that considers the arc of a student’s development as a writer throughout the program, I cultivated a craft lens to consider what I’m doing in my work and how to look at the work of other writers. I came out of the program a better writer, reader, and editor, and I’d also say, a better cultural citizen as part of a community of Warren Wilson alumni that extends after graduation.

So to get back to the question, earning an MFA changed me as a writer and a person, and it allowed me entrance to a supportive and far-reaching community of faculty and alumni.

I don’t pay much attention to the pervasive rhetoric that circles around every season or so, calling out that MFA programs in creative writing are mass producing mediocre writers who support the uninspired and uninspiring literary journals and elite publishing venues that publish work by the same crew of insiders from insider MFA programs. I am mostly indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy. Where I’d shed blood is over the line that creative writing can’t be taught. Teaching is complicated, writing students are varied, and my life is forever changed by the dedication and generosity of my teachers.

Who are some writers or works of literature that have been especially important to you? What have you learned from them, either about writing or about living?  

In addition to the list of books above, I’ll add a few others: Lewis Nordan, author of (among other titles) Wolf Whistle, Music of the Swamp, and Lightning Song. Some time ago, I heard Lewis Nordan read in Minneapolis with Dorothy Allison. I was at the reading for Dorothy Allison, but what I remember was Lewis Nordan reading an extended scene from Wolf Whistle, which is a fictional account of the murder of Emmett Till. The scene Nordan read was from the point of view of Bobo’s—the murdered child’s—“demon eye,” the eye that is knocked out by the killer’s bullet. Nordan gives Bobo a voice in death that was not available to him in life. Not only does the dead boy’s vision expand to see past his own death into the lives of characters he hadn’t encountered previously, he also sees into the future and the significance of his murder, “worlds invisible to him before death.” The scene is devastating and out of place and so audacious. I read Nordan to model how to tell a sad story funny. Ditto with Lorrie Moore, Mary Robison, Sherman Alexie, and—Samuel Beckett? I saw a production of Endgame at Steppenwolf Theatre when we lived in Chicago. There was an Eastern European woman sitting next to me with her grandson, I presumed, who looked to be about 11 or 12. Before the show started, she leaned over to her young companion and said, “To understand everything, you must first understand the Nothingness. This is the Nothingness.” I think the Nothingness is pretty funny.

It wasn’t until I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, for grad school that I was anywhere south, but I read so many Southern writers, like Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tennessee Williams to understand the use of voice, language, tone, velocity, and relationship to place.

An author that I turn to often is Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping is my version of a perfect book. I like imperfection in novels, sideroads, an authorial breakdown or two. If a work is shorter, I have higher expectations. Perfection is realized in Housekeeping. It’s just a book that I love so much. I love those sad sisters, I love the elegant, image-dense sentences, I love the lake, I love the name of the town—Fingerbone! When I was writing many of the stories in my collection Below the Surface, I looked at Housekeeping for a view of another version of family, and on the first page of my novel, The Third Twin I have this quote from Housekeeping, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.”

Books that I’m living with at the moment, and by living with, I mean literally, the books I have piled on every surface in my apartment:

Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon. This is a beautiful novel where the pressure on the language drives the story. Not much happens. Almost no dialogue. Close third POV. A North Korean war refugee is relocated to Brazil. On a sentence by sentence level, an exquisite book.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine. My particular interest is in how Rankine incorporates visual art into her poetry. She and her husband, the videographer John Lucas, made a series of video “Situations” that are referred to in Citizen. The book is a living document, or art installation.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. I’m not a theory head. I like to read bits and pieces of theory to sort of launch off of, but mostly it’s not my thing. My thing is story. I write creative nonfiction too, so when I’m reading The Argonauts, I’m considering the story first, then form and structure, POV, language, and then somewhere down the line, if I get around to it, I’ll think about the ideas. Nelson’s subjects—falling in love, making family, motherhood, change and transition inherent in any relationship and the queering of those constructs—are reflected in the form of the text which are short little paragraphs.

What compelled you to use historic photos in the novella? What do you hope they add to the novella as part of the reading experience? How’d you go about finding them?

For me, the photos are all about entering the story. I visited the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, this past spring to do photo research.

A book of photographs by William G. Gabler of abandoned Midwestern farmplaces was one of the inspirations for Road Trip. The book is The Death of the Dream and two of the photographs from that book appear in Road Trip. When I came across Gabler’s book I was living in Western Wisconsin on 20 acres in an L-shaped farmhouse. I had grown up living in new houses, built to order. Living in a rural area in a house that was built at the turn of the century, on land that had been cleared and cultivated and then gone back to woods, excited my imagination. From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, “…the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

In that farmhouse I dreamed and those dreams enter everything I write.

I came across another book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, which is a collection of photographs by the nineteenth century photographer Charles Van Schaik taken in the city of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The photographs are paired with news reports of suicides and murder, infant death, crime, mental illness, and business failure. The images cast a spell. The first time I looked at Wisconsin Death Trip, I kept the book in my car. I didn’t want the book in the house, I didn’t want it in the place where I ate breakfast and slept; the book is at odds with the idea of shelter.

When I started thinking of Road Trip, I used Death of the Dream and Wisconsin Death Trip to set the scene, so to speak, for the story. Then I became fixated on a photo of threshing from the Wisconsin Historical Society. This photo evoked Road Trip for me, which is kind of funny because it’s not an image of a wagon train or any other kind of a road trip—it’s a photo of threshing with horse-drawn wagons in the early 20th century. The photo ultimately didn’t make it into the book, but it was an early contender for the cover image and it was my screen saver while I was writing Road Trip. Then I saw the image of the mannequin in the window of a hat shop in Black River Falls. I wrote the scene of Carmella shaping a butterhead girl/man with a mustache based on this image. The photos in the book are not necessarily specific to the time period of the Starks’ story line, but I was more interested in conveying atmosphere rather than hyperrealism. So in some instances, the photos informed the story and in others, the story is enhanced I hope by the photos.

Lynette D’Amico worked in publishing and advertising for a decade. Today, she is a former ad writer and graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Ocean State Review and at Brevity and Slag Glass City. She is the content editor for the online performance journal HowlRound. Born in Buffalo, New York, she has lived in St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago. She makes her home in Boston with her love Polly Carl.

(Author photo by Meg Taintor)

Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 13, 2015

The following paper — “Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving” — was presented at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, which ran from June 11 to 13, 2015. This paper was part of the “Voice and Point of View” panel on June 13. Other papers presented were “Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration” by Buzz Mauro and “The Art of Narrative Telling: Transforming Cheever’s Voice” by Grant Tracey. In addition to presenting, I also moderated the panel.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

I’m here today to talk about writing my novel An Untimely Frost, which I worked on between about 2006 (I think) and 2011, eventually publishing it via my own press, Twelve Winters, in 2014—Twelve Winters Press, by the way, has a table at the conference. The inspiration for the novel was Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley.  It seemed to me that a romantic relationship between the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the author of Frankenstein could make for an intriguing chemistry.  I didn’t know where or when I’d learned of that rumor, and I wasn’t especially interested in verifying its accuracy because I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to write a fictionalized biography of Irving and Shelley and their time together.  Rather, I was going to use them as sources of inspiration and an armory of period details as needed. [As noted, I didn’t research the actual relationship between Irving and Shelley when writing the novel; however, in preparing this talk I came across this rare bookThe Romance of Mary W. Shelley, John Howard Payne and Washington Irving (1907)–which would be of interest to anyone who wanted to know more about the famous authors’ “romance.”]

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

For an earlier project, which resulted in the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, I wrote a fictionalized biography of author Herman Melville’s real-life experiences among cannibals in 1842.  I was dedicated to staying true to the established details of Melville’s life and times, which made for a challenging artistic endeavor.  I like to believe that the novella turned out pretty well, but oftentimes I did feel hemmed in by reality and by Melville’s biography.  Not to mention, real life rarely provides us with a satisfying narrative arc, which tends to handicap a novelist.  It’s a bit like running in a three-legged race.  It’s an experience all its own, but there’s no helping that the entire time one is keenly aware of how much easier it would be to race the usual two-legged way.

weeping-with-an-ancient-god-front-cover

Thus, when I began writing about Irving and Shelley, I had no intention of shackling my creativity to their real lives.  I began by concocting fictional names for them, eventually ending up with “Jefferson Wheelwright” and “Margaret Haeley.”  I also decided early on that Jefferson Wheelwright would be my first-person narrator.  I obviously had some familiarity with Washington Irving—and I’d taught “Sleepy Hollow” a couple of times in a college course—but I didn’t feel that I knew him and, more importantly, his voice well enough to create my Jefferson Wheelwright persona.  To prepare, I did read several biographical sketches of Irving and more of his fictional stories.  However, what I really wanted to steep my brain in was his real-life speaking voice, and the closest I could come to that, given that he lived in the early and mid nineteenth century, was to study his published letters.

I got hold of two collections in particular, both edited by Stanley T. Williams.  One collection, brought out by Harvard University Press, concerns Irving’s letters “from England and the Continent, 1821-1828,” and the other, brought out by Yale University Press, consists of his letters “from Sunnyside and Spain,” spanning the years 1840-1845.  I made use of both collections, and in fact one of the epigraphs for the novel comes from a Madrid 1842 letter.  However, I found the letters from the earlier period to be more helpful since they correspond more closely to the time frame and the geography of my novel’s setting.

I culled the letters, along with biographical information, for two sorts of material.  First, while I wasn’t writing a fictionalized biography based on Irving’s life, I was open to transferring and transforming real-life details from Irving to my creation, Wheelwright.  Second, and more vital, I wanted to capture as nearly as possible Irving’s narrative style.

Without reading through the biographical notes and letters in their entirety again, it’s difficult for me to recall all that I borrowed in terms of real-life details and events.  I did skim through the letters in preparation for this presentation, and I was surprised in a couple of instances regarding details that in my recollection I had wholly made up, but in actuality stemmed from my research.

One of the character details that I know I extracted from Irving’s letters had to do with a skin condition of his legs and feet that plagued him in the 1821-28 period.  For instance, he writes from Germany on August 20, 1822:  “I grew very lame in trudging about the dutch [sic] towns, and unluckily applied a recipe given me by old Lady Liston (may god bless her, and preserve her from her own prescriptions!)—it played the vengeance with me [. . .] I could scarcely put my feet to the ground & bear my weight upon them [. . .]” (“Wi[e]sbaden” 19).  Elsewhere Irving talks about seeking treatment from various physicians.  I decided early on in the writing process that some sort of foot condition would be part of my Jefferson Wheelwright’s situation.  I guess I vaguely thought it might have some metaphorical value, connecting to his fear that he was not evolving, not moving forward, as a writer and artist.  In An Untimely Frost, Wheelwright requests the aid of a London physician, Dr. Carter.  In Chapter 2, I write,

On the first morning, he listened to my complaint while touching and gently kneading my feet and toes, which were blotchy red, except around the toenails where the skin was a vibrant purple.  Spots on my feet were pained to the touch while my toes were dead numb. [. . .] The good doctor said it was a circulation problem; he said that even though exercise irritated my feet, rest was counterproductive, that we must increase the blood flow to nourish the nerve fibers.” (11)

In reality, Irving was laid up for days and even weeks with bouts of his “cutaneous condition,” but I didn’t think that would make for an especially exciting narrative, to have Jefferson Wheelwright lying around his hotel room for days on end nursing his feet, so I had Dr. Carter prescribe exercise.  Carter becomes an important character in the novel—although when I first introduced him in the second chapter I had no idea whether it would be a cameo appearance or lead to a larger role.

In addition to physical details I also borrowed one of Washington Irving’s personality traits, namely his lack of interest and acumen when it came to business affairs.  He let his elder brothers manage the family’s business interests, while he focused on his literary aspirations.  In my novel, I write:

So far I was having a splendid time lounging in the gigantic bed at The Saint Georges [hotel], drinking the black-black Italian coffee, and scribbling my tale.  I even felt a brief—brief, mind you—pang of guilt at the idea that this is what I did to earn my keep in the world.  Like many of the Wheelwright men, I’d tried my hand at business, but to dismal results.  I simply do not have a head for numbers and inventories and so on—I can conjure whole worlds with my pen, yet adding a column of numbers and arriving at the correct result seemed beyond me (I believe because midway I would lose interest and begin daydreaming of haunted castles on lonely, wind-swept cliffs). (10)

There were numerous details from Irving’s life, especially his writing life, that I commandeered for my purposes, but even more important was capturing Irving’s narrative style—and in particular the style he used in his letters to friends and family, which was somewhat different, on the whole, than his published authorial voice, such as in The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall stories.

I wrote a brief essay about trying to capture Irving’s voice for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series (it appeared in number 54 and I reprinted it in An Untimely Frost).  Since it is brief and to the point at hand, I would like to insert it here in its entirety:

Like the vast majority of writers who have come out of a university creative writing program, I was taught to write contemporary literary fiction.  However, for over a decade now, I’ve been mainly attracted to historically based narrative, both as a reader and as a writer.  When we think of writers tackling a story or novel set in another time and another place, we imagine them doing extensive research on things like people, on the chronology of events, on various aspects of the material world they are attempting to fabricate—and we tend to imagine rightly.  For me, though, there is another sort of research that must go on as well, the results of which are not as easy to spot in a story as, say, an infamous assassination or an obsolete gadget; and that is researching the structure of language itself.  It can be a nebulous term, but what I’m most interested in is a setting’s voice.

Voice should contribute to the ring of authenticity, to be sure, but, more than that, voice can actually compel the movement of the narrative; voice can shape its structure.  William H. Gass spoke to this phenomenon in a 1976 interview for The Paris Review, saying that “word resemblance leads you on [as a writer], not form.  So you’ve really got a musical problem, certain paragraphs you are arranging, and you imagine you are orchestrating the flow of feelings from one thing to another.”  Gass summed up by saying, “Once you get your key signature, the theme inherent in the notes begins to emerge:  the relationship between art and life and all that.”  Gass, author of some of the most admired books in the English language, suggests that the physical structure of the words on the page—and the meanings, feelings, moods that they convey—help guide the writer to, essentially, everything else in the narrative:  plot development, characterization, theme, setting. . . .

The importance of this sort of research in historically based fiction is nicely illustrated in Charles Frazier’s highly acclaimed novel Cold Mountain, which is set in Civil War-era Appalachia.  In an interview available online, Frazier said, “I wanted the language of the book to create a sense of otherness, of another world, one that the reader doesn’t entirely know.”  Frazier did library research regarding the material world he was creating, finding “words for tools and processes and kitchen implements that are almost lost words.”  Beyond that, however, he was interested in “getting a sense of the particular use of language in that region, the rhythm of it.”  Frazier culled period letters and diaries for much of his information, but he also had the benefit of having actually heard “that authentic Appalachian accent” when he was a child.

For my own writing I’ve been attracted to more distant times and places, and as such have not had the benefit of hearing period speakers so printed examples of voice have been my guideposts.  Nevertheless, the feel and rhythm of the language can filter into one’s writing by paying attention to the linguistic structures.  For my current project I’ve been creating a first-person narrator based on the American author Washington Irving.  It isn’t a fictionalized biography.  It’s more that Irving’s persona has been the primary inspiration for my protagonist.  When I first became interested in the project, I tracked down an obscure collection of Irving’s letters that he wrote between 1821 and 1828.  The book has been invaluable to me in my effort to develop an effective narrative voice.

Simply put, in Irving’s day a well-read New Englander structured the language in ways that sound quite foreign—quite exotic even—to us now.  Take, for example, this letter written at “Beycheville,” France, October 17, 1825:

I have had something of a dull bilious affection of the system which has clung to me for more than two weeks past. . . .  The greater part of Mrs Guestiers household, who have lately removed here, are unwell—I have tried to shake off my own morbid fit by exercise—I have been out repeatedly hunting, as there were two packs of hounds in the neighborhood, but though I have taken violent exercise I do not feel yet reinstated by it. (50)

The terms are spectacular, yes—heaven help anyone who contracts “a dull bilious affection” and Irving’s reference to “violent exercise” makes me think of junior high P.E. class—but even more meaningful to my eye and ear are the syntactic rhythms.  Today one might say, “I’ve been feeling sick for a couple of weeks,” but for Irving the “affection of the system” has “clung” to him “for more than two weeks past.”  The structure implies that his sense of unwell-being is a sort pernicious companion of whom he can’t quite rid himself, in spite of his taking “violent exercise”—giving the act of exercise a physicality, as if it were an item from the apothecary’s pantry.

Yet I have no particular interest in my protagonist’s contracting a bilious affection or partaking of violent exercise.  Rather I want the structure of the language.  I want to tell my own tale, but I want to form the sentences as Irving might have had he written of the same events nearly two centuries ago.  I normally keep the book of Irving’s letters on my nightstand, and every so often I open to a random page and read awhile, perhaps a few pages but often as little as a sentence or two, because I’m not searching for information:  I want to keep retracing the sentence rhythms in my brain, like wagon wheels along a worn track, so that when I sit down to write, the words flow as naturally in the direction of his prose style as if he (or someone like him) were composing them himself.  (I must go now—I feel the onset of a bilious affection.)

There haven’t been a lot of reivews of the novel, and the ones that have appeared are somewhat mixed—but the reviewers seem to appreciate the narrative voice that I was able to create.  For example, Anne Drolet writes in the North American Review:  “Morrissey styles Wheelwright’s voice after the patterns and idioms of 19th-century British speech, and that choice lulls the reader into the historical setting” (47).  I presume being lulled into a setting is better than being jarred into one.  Cécile Sune says in her blog Book Obsessed:  “The writing is beautiful and elaborate, and is a testament to the research Ted Morrissey conducted for this book . . . As a result, it feels like a Victorian novel”—ultimately, though, she only gave it three out of five stars on Amazon (damn it).  And most recently William Wright writes for the Chicago Book Review:  “There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost.  It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James [I like that line], which proves to be an intriguing combination”—but Wright concludes with “Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph.  As it stands, it was a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.”

I’ll tell you what, critics are hard to please.

My five years floating around in the fictional consciousness of Washington Irving was an interesting artistic experiment, and it really stretched me as a writer.  When I finished with the novel, I began writing a series of interconnected short stories—each in third-person, with shifting points of view, and set for the most part in an unnamed Midwestern village in the 1950s.  I finished the twelfth and final story just a few weeks ago, and eventually I’ll be bringing them out in a collection titled Crowsong for the Stricken.  I’m considering other long-term writing projects at the moment, and one idea is to return to nineteenth-century London, but not Jefferson Wheelwright.  Never say never, but I believe I’ve said all I care to say in the voice and persona of Mr. Wheelwright.

Works Cited

Drolet, Anne.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  North American Review Fall 2014 (299.4):  47.  Print.

“An Interview with Charles Frazier.”  BookBrowse [c. 1997].  Web.  9 June 2015.

Morrissey, Ted.  An Untimely Frost.  Sherman, Ill.:  Twelve Winters Press, 2014.  Print.

—-.  “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.”  Writers Ask #54.  Portland, Ore.:  Glimmer Train Press.  Print.

Sune, Cécile.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Book Obsessed 10 Oct. 2014.  Web.

Williams, Stanley T., ed.  Letters from Sunnyside and Spain by Washington Irving.  New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1928.  Print.

—-.  Washington Irving and the Storrows:  Letters from England and the Continent, 1821-1828.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1933.  Print.

Wright, William.  “A Hot and Cold ‘Frost.’”  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Chicago Book Review 18 May 2015.  Web.

(Note that the portrait of Washington Irving was obtained via Wikipedia at this link.)

When Not to Edit

Posted in May 2015 by Ted Morrissey on May 18, 2015

I’ve been writing for publication since high school (I graduated, ahem, in 1980), and I’ve been editing publications since then, including scholastic publications and the literary journals A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity. In 2012 I founded Twelve Winters Press, and I’ve had a hand in editing each of the books we’ve published (we’ll be releasing our ninth title next month). Editing a book is different, of course, from editing a piece for a journal — but no matter the context, I’ve come to believe that there’s a right time to edit someone’s work, and there’s most definitely a wrong time.

It’s the latter that has prompted me to write this post, and in particular an encounter with the editor-in-chief of a well-respected literary journal which ended in her withdrawing my piece due to “Author unwilling to cooperate with editorial process.” About two years earlier I had a similar encounter with a literary press — but in that case I had signed a contract allowing the press editorial control of the piece, never imagining how far its editor-in-chief would take liberties.

I’m not going to identify the publications and their editors.  Even though I disagree with their approaches, I respect that they’re doing important and largely thankless work.  I have no interest in blackening their eyes, but there are a lot of editors at work — what with online journals and print-on-demand publishers springing up daily — so I think it’s worth discussing when the right and wrong times to edit are.

I had very similar experiences with the journal and the publisher, so I’m going to focus on the more recent experience with the journal.  Last week I received in the mail the issue that my short story “Erebus” was supposed to appear in (I generally try to support the journals that publish my work by buying subscriptions).  It’s an attractive little journal, which no doubt contains some very good pieces.  It would have been a nice feather in my CV cap.

The problem, as I see it, is one of timing.  The story was accepted for publication with no caveats whatsoever on November 29, 2014.  Months went by, during which time I supported the journal by including the forthcoming publication on my website and in my bio to other journals — some free publicity if you will.  Then I received the following email with my edited story attached:

[March 21 — 7:16 p.m.]

Dear Ted,

I’m sending out copy edits for the upcoming issue, and have attached yours to this message.

My edits are made using the track changes feature, and comments/questions/suggestions are included in comment balloons in the document. Please make any changes within the document with track changes turned on. Please do not accept any of my changes or delete comments, as I will need those to remain in place as references. If everything looks okay to you, please let me know by e-mail (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes).

Thank you and I look forward to including your work in the upcoming issue! Just let me know if you have any questions.

It was obviously a generic email sent to all contributors (which is understandable) because when I opened the document I found there were numerous changes and requests for changes — so “[i]f everything looks okay to you, please let me know by email (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes)” didn’t even apply because there were places here and there where the editor (or another editor) wanted me to replace a word or revise a section to make some other aspect of the story plainer — things to that effect.  Also, someone must have read Stephen King’s On Writing and really taken his disdain for adverbs to heart because every adverb in the 3,300-word story was deleted, regardless of how it impacted the meaning of the sentence.  Moreover, I’ve developed a style for my literary work that uses punctuation (or doesn’t use it) in nonstandard ways; and the editor had standardized my punctuation throughout.

I was flummoxed.  Here are our verbatim exchanges over the next few weeks:

[March 21 — 8:31 p.m.]

Hi, [Editor]. While I can see some improvements here and there, in general the editing is too heavy-handed, for example, the addition of quotation marks and tinkering with italics.  I’m well aware of conventional rules, and I’m breaking them.  I’m not sure why journal editors accept pieces for publication, then find so much fault with them before publication.  I’m ok with considering a wording change or two, but I’m not comfortable with this amount of editing.

If you didn’t care for the story in its original form, you should have rejected it.  I’m not sure where that leaves us.  Thank you for the time and thought you’ve put into my story, but I disagree with much of what is suggested here.  Not angry, just disappointed and a little frustrated.

Ted

* * *

[April 1 — 12:09 p.m.]

Hi Ted,

While I’m aware that you were intentionally breaking stylistic conventions, I added things like quotation marks because they were needed for clarity, i.e., to separate narrative from dialogue. There were some sections where the distinction wasn’t clear without them. Many of the other changes I implemented were for our house style. However, those edits are minor in light of many of the other edits that are suggested, notably in the comments. I edit every piece before publication…that’s what editors do. So, that is to say that the edits aren’t personal, and in my experience, that is the reaction of many new writers, to take edits personally somehow. So the bottom line is that if you’re not comfortable making any changes to your work, then I’ll withdraw it from the issue and you’re free to shop it elsewhere.

Let me know.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:42 p.m.]

Edit “Erebus” however you see fit, [Editor]. Thank you for including it in the journal.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:50 p.m.]

There are editorial suggestions in the comments that require your feedback. I have attached the piece again. Below are the instructions for editing in track changes:

Edits are made using the Track Changes feature in Word. Please look over the edits and changes I have made, and let me know if you accept these or have any questions. Of course, if there is anything you disagree with, please let me know and we can discuss it to try to reach a mutually agreeable solution. If you make any further changes, please make sure that you do so with Track Changes toggled on, so that I can be sure that your work makes it into the final copy; otherwise, I may not see it.

Please have edits back to me by 4/5, if possible

* * *

[April 1 — 2:09 p.m.]

Gosh, [Editor]. You guys seem to be making this as difficult as you can.  I don’t agree with any of the editorial suggestions/questions, so it’s difficult for me to find a better way of saying things.  I did all that work before I sent it to you, so now we’re into potay-to/potah-to, and I don’t know how to say things the way you want to hear them.  I looked at your comments again to see if I could get into the spirit of things.  I’ve been publishing my writing (fiction, poetry, academic writing, essays, reviews) for thirty-five years, and I’ve been editing and publishing other people’s work for nearly that length of time, and I’ve never experienced a process like this one before.  I disagree with your comments on the story, but I’ve given you free rein to edit it however you like.  If you feel like you can make the story better, please do so.  I’m generously putting my faith in your editorial skills.  I don’t know what more I can do than that.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:10 p.m.]

You can consider “Erebus” withdrawn from the issue.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:40 p.m.]

Thank you.  That’s been my inclination too.

All the best,

t

In offering her carte blanche, I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass (ok, maybe a tiny bit).  After all, her original email said I didn’t need to return the edited document.  But, truly, I didn’t see the point of attempting to guess what wording would make her happy, like trying to sell shoes to someone — “Something with a heel perhaps?  No, a loafer?  Maybe a half-boot?”  There were two aspects of the exchange that I found particularly baffling (and they parallel the experience I had with the literary publisher a couple of years earlier).

One thing I’m baffled by is her surprise (and irritation, I think) that I would take the edits personally. She characterizes it as a shortcoming of “many new writers” (rather condescendingly, I feel).  Well, I ain’t no new writer, so that’s not the problem. I think all writers and poets of literary work take their diction, syntax, and punctuation choices seriously, so why wouldn’t they be emotionally invested in those choices?  And having those choices edited to conform to “house style” is especially irksome, which brings me to the second thing I’m baffled by:  house style?!?

Why in the world would a literary journal have a house style that applies to the actual content of its stories and poems?  Of course they would have a style when it comes to things like the font they use for titles and authors’ names, and they should be consistent in placing a translator’s name at the head or foot of a published piece — things like that.  But a style for the content of the literary work itself?  It’s, well, ridiculous.  “Dear Mr. McCarthy, please insert quotation marks in your dialogue … and Mr. Joyce, no more dashes in your dialogue … and Mr. Shakespeare, stop making up words! — if it’s not in the dictionary, we won’t publish it … Sorry, our hands are tied, house style and all.”

The publisher I had a run-in with two years ago insisted on editing my literary book according to the Chicago Manual of Style.  The CMS, really?

All right, so I disagree with editors imposing arbitrary styles on literary work, but that’s their prerogative, I suppose.  What I find downright unethical is accepting a piece for publication without any reservations, waiting several months, then making significant edits that the author is supposed to accept or else (the publisher flexed her contract language and forced CMS on my work, while the lit journal editor-in-chief withdrew my story, in something of a snit I think).

A better approach, I believe, is the one we use at Twelve Winters Press.  Our editors and readers offer authors feedback — food for thought, as I call it — but the decisions when it comes to the final presentation of the work rest with the writers and poets.  If there are reservations about some aspect of the work, those should be ironed out before it’s formally accepted.  There should be no surprises and heavy-handed editing months and months later.  When our contributing editor John McCarthy was reading submissions for his Extinguished & Extinct anthology, he had some suggestions for authors in a few instances, but they were made up front, before offering publication.  Obviously there are many editors and publishers who operate this way, and as a writer I’ve had the good fortune to work with several of them.

What is more, in the case of the literary journal editor, she took my story out of circulation during the peak reading months of the year, from November to April.  Most lit journals, due to their being affiliated with universities, follow an academic calendar and many begin folding their tents for the year in April or May.  It seems odd to me, also, that the editor felt I was over-reacting to changes that were, in her view, minor — yet she couldn’t see fit to letting the story run in its original form when I expressed my strong preference to leave the story be.  Pulling the story after five months due to a disagreement over minor edits could be seen as an over-reaction too.

It’s my impression that with both the literary publisher and the editor-in-chief, the problem arose in part because another editor had acquired or accepted the work; then someone else took charge of it before it was published.  If so, then the problem is in-house.  If the readers and editors acquiring and accepting work have different artistic sensibilities from the top-dogs on the masthead, it’s going to create problems for the authors they’re publishing.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to see all editors respect their authors and their authors’ work enough to give them the benefit of artistic doubt.  In the commercial, mass market world of publishing, I can see where publishers and editors may feel the need to pull rank since capitalism drives their decisions.  They may well know better than the author what phrasing, what title or what cover image may enhance sales.

But literary publishing isn’t about sales — and don’t I know it!  It’s about being true to the work and respecting the author’s artistic vision . . . or at least it ought to be.

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of “On Being Blue”

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2015

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, Feb. 26-28, 2015, as part of the panel “Sexual Manners,” chaired by Mariah Douglas, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘A world of bottle-glass colours’: Defining Sexual Manners in Subversive Spaces,” by Bonnie McLean, Marquette University; and “Sex as Border Crossing in Anglophone Labanese Fiction,” by Syrine Hout, American University in Beruit. For other Gass papers at this blog, search “gass.”

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of On Being Blue

One of William H. Gass’s first publications was the highly experimental novella (?) Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared as a special supplement in TriQuarterly literary journal in 1968 and was republished in book form by Dalkey Archive in 1989. The experiment revolves around the titular character Babs Masters, whose sexual history and growing sexual arousal are represented via a variety of signifiers, including bawdy and explicit diction, typographical features and nude pictures.  In fact, the book’s cover features a neck-to-navel photograph of the nude model portraying Babs with the title and author’s name projected onto her pale chest:  the word “Wife” is distorted in the cleavage between her breasts, and “BY WILLIAM H. GASS” runs in a straight line beneath them. Appropriately the back cover features a close-up of Babs’ nude backside above a paragraph-length synopsis of the book which reads in part:  “Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice both her new lover and the reader.”  Every page of the book features either an erotic photograph of Babs and/or sexually charged language, both explicit and implicit.  (As an aside, earlier I called Babs the titular character.  I don’t find that funny, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who are less evolved than I am.)

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

By Gass’s own reckoning, Willie Masters’ was for the most part a failure.  “I was trying out some things,” Gass said in a 1976 interview.  “Didn’t work.  Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas. . . .  I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects” (LeClair 22).  It so happens that 1976 was also the year that he published his novella-like essay (or essay-like novella) On Being Blue, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” in which he discusses at length various manifestations of the word and concept of blue, especially so-called blue language.  It seems that one of the chief lessons he learned from writing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was that writers should avoid at all cost writing about sex:

Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. (19)

He concludes the section by saying “a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing” (20).  What is more, “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost” (16-17).  In sum, according to Gass, an explicit description of sex is inherently unartful, and the insertion (sorry) of an actual sexual climax in a story counterbalances and therefore diminishes the plot’s narrative climax.  (Since the Louisville Conference is devoted to literature and culture, I will make the rather low-brow observation that Gass’s analysis may be borne out by the number of television series that quickly fizzle after the flirtatious main characters finally have sex, dubbed “the Moonlighting curse.”  Recent examples include Bones, Castle and New Girl.)

Allow me to raise my brow again to critic H.L. Hix, who has suggested Gass’s fiction writing since Willie Masters’ “can be read as an attempt to restore events to proper proportion” (72).  Writing in 2002, Hix cites Gass’s mammoth novel The Tunnel in particular.  I agree with Hix’s assessment.  The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Gass’s most recent—and presumably his final—novel, Middle C, is an even more overt representation of the principles that the author delineated in On Being Blue.  In 2013’s Middle C, the protagonist Joseph Skizzen has several opportunities to pursue romantic relationships with female characters, but in each case he retreats into his safely insulated academic life as a professor of music theory.  What is more, Gass frequently alludes to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and the sin-bearing serpent could be seen as sex attempting to slither its way into Gass’s narrative and corrupt the pristine text.  Indeed, in On Being Blue Gass discusses the “five common methods by which sex gains entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows”; and the “commonest, of course” is “the direct depiction of sexual material—thoughts, acts, wishes” (10).

Middle C keeps its focus on Joseph Skizzen from his birth to retirement age, and twice in Joey’s youth older women attempt to seduce him.  Joey’s reaction in both cases suggests perhaps the level of alarm serious writers ought to exhibit when their narratives begin to flirt with describing sexual scenes.  The first such episode in the novel involves Joey’s college French teacher Madame Mieux, whose “laughter preceded her like a warning siren” (100).  In the word siren, of course, Gass describes Madame Mieux as both a temptress and a warning.  Joey’s grades are mediocre, but Madame Mieux invites him to her house on the pretense of listening to music, promising him a “trombone concerto,” and Gass writes, “He made a mistake.  He accepted her invitation” (103).  Madame Mieux beckons him into a room filled with pillows, where she is lying at its center smoking a joint.  She invites him to make himself “comfy,” but instead he flees from her.  Outside, “[h]e realized already that he was not embarrassed or repulsed, he was terrified, and that terror was not the appropriate response:  amusement maybe, disdain perhaps, a sense of superiority or a feeling of pity” (104).  Metaphorically, Joey is akin to the writer who is tempted to narrate a sexual scene but saves himself from the absurd—what Gass calls “Madame Mieux’s pillow party.”

Later, Joseph lands a job as a librarian at a public library run by Miss Marjorie Bruss, a middle-aged woman who also has a room to rent next to her house, so she becomes both Joey’s boss and his landlady.  Marjorie gets in the habit of leaving milk and cookies for Joey in his room.  One night, Marjorie comes to him wearing only a robe.  Gass writes, “She seemed zipped into a towel, her wild hair terrible to behold, and sat upon the bed with the familiarity of one who has made it” (286).  Joseph stares at her, “transfixed.”  She rises from the bed, telling him that he is a “[g]ood boy . . . [who] deserve[s] a nice surprise.”  She then bends over Joseph and puts her hands on his face.  Joseph says, “Unhand me, Madame, you forget yourself, . . . frightened from the world into a novel; and Marjorie recoiled as though struck by the book from which he had unconsciously taken the phrase” (286-87).  The comically melodramatic scene continues to unfold, becoming more and more ridiculous.  Joey’s milk is knocked over when Marjorie is repulsed, and she begins screaming the cliché phrase “Unhand me” louder and louder.  She goes outside in her robe and scuffs and removes the blocks from beneath the wheels of Joey’s beat-up car so that it rolls down the drive into a utility pole.  At which point the humiliated woman orders him to leave, both his rented residence and his job.

Again, Joseph Skizzen’s extreme reaction to a woman’s attempt to seduce him reflects how authors might best respond when their characters try to seduce them into writing a sexual scene.  In the case of Madame Mieux, Joey was invited into her pillow-filled boudoir, whereas Marjorie Bruss invited herself into Joey’s room.  In both cases they are women who have power over him, his teacher and his employer/landlady, suggestive at some level perhaps of the strong draw toward the sexual in fiction.  In On Being Blue, Gass points out that other extreme acts which are often the stuff of fiction can be controlled by the author—but not so with sex once that path is chosen.  He writes, “As writers we don’t hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead?” (20).  The comedic nature of the scenes that result from Madame Mieux’s and Miss Bruss’s attempted seductions are deliberate on Gass’s part, but perhaps no more comedic than if he had attempted to render serious sexual scenes—or maybe it would be more accurate to say Gass would find such scenes tragic as far as his success at fashioning them into literary art.

Combining the sexual with the comic has been typical for Gass since the writing of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  In particular, he’s interested in the writing of bawdy limericks.  His ponderous novel The Tunnel is filled with limericks of the bluest sort.  For example,

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

There’s a second verse to this particular limerick, but I imagine you’re trusting me on this point.  Gass has said that he writes limericks because he’s unable to write longer poems.  He told LeClair in the 1976 interview, “I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form.  I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem” (31).  More significantly, the limerick encapsulates Gass’s attitudes toward writing that involves sexual language.  In another interview, Gass said that he’s not interested in writing about sex, but he’s very interested in “the language of sex”:  “[T]here’s very little sexuality in my work, but there are a lot of sexual words.  I have very few steamy sexual scenes, if any.  The metaphor is fundamental, sure.  But my interest in the subject and my use of a character’s sexuality are almost invariably either symptomatic or metaphorical, whereas for a great number of writers sex is the direct object” (Brans 107-8).  By symptomatic he means that the sexual references represent “some larger quality in the character that isn’t directly sexual at all—dominance, power, or what might be called the verbal sexualization of the mind” (108).  These statements were made nearly thirty years prior to the publication of Middle C, but his approach is clearly represented by Joseph Skizzen, who finds himself the locus of female domination throughout the novel:  Madame Mieux, Marjorie Bruss, his sister Debbie, his mother Miriam, among several other female characters.  In fact, Joey dreams of a pre-Eve Eden, an Eden before the Fall.  Gass writes, “He did dream of strolling naked as Adam through a garden [. . .] No . . . rethink that . . . he would be more naked than Adam, leafless as a winter tree, untroubled by any companion, Eve or angel. [. . . H]e’d be free to do whatever he chose to do, to his blame or to his credit [. . .]” (254).  Joey’s Edenic daydream ends, and he returns to the real world in which every woman in his life is the cause of some sort of anxiety.  He ticks off a list of them and the troubles they cause him.

The prelapsarian world that Skizzen fantasizes about would be one free of the absurdity of sexual situations, and he creates the closest thing he can manage, eventually living with his mother in a rambling and poorly maintained house on the college campus where he teaches.  Here, free of any opportunity for a romantic encounter, Professor Skizzen pursues two of his favorite hobbies:  collecting newspaper clippings and making notecards that record the daily atrocities of humankind, and writing and revising a sentence regarding the human race.  Gass, via his main character, returns to the sentence he is composing and reworking repeatedly throughout the novel, which he finally perfects near the end:  “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive” (352).  The evolving sentence is in fact a sort of central character in Middle C, which reflects one of Gass’s unusual theories regarding writing fiction:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  In his essay “The Concept of Character,” he writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (49, 50).  Skizzen’s finally perfecting his sentence about the inhumanity of man serves as a kind of climax for the novel.  It is obviously an understated sort of climax compared to most works of fiction, and one can see that scenes of sexual climax would certainly tend to eclipse a music professor’s perfectly worded, perfectly balanced sentence—thus bearing out H.L. Hix’s observation that since Willie Masters’ Gass has been working to “restore events to proper proportion.”

Given the subject of my paper and its timing—with all the hubbub in recent weeks about the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey—it seems appropriate to refer to E.L. James’s mega bestseller, which has a sexual scene on virtually every page.  Last fall, I read through most of Fifty Shades in about an hour in anticipation of teaching a workshop on writing about sex—or rather on not writing about sex—and based on that experience I was loathe to return to the book for this paper, so I’ll rely on Anthony Lane’s review of the movie in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  In comparing the film to the novel, Lane writes,

Above all, we are denied James’s personifications, which are so much livelier than her characters. . . . No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.  There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of [James’s] prose.

Beyond the vapid prose, James’s problem, according to Gass’s theory, is that it is impossible to create an effective narrative climax when there is a sexual climax described in detail on every other page.  As Gass said in one of his most recent interviews, “[T]hat’s what ninety percent of bad literature is.  It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (Gerke 43).  Sadly, more than a hundred million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Andrew Lane’s figure)—which helps to explain why it’s so difficult to publish a literary novel in the United States, and if one does, it’s a challenge to get a hundred people to read it, let alone buy a copy.

Middle C will almost certainly be William Gass’s final novel, but the ninety-year-old author has a new collection of novellas and stories coming out in October, titled Eyes, which will no doubt include material that he said he was working on in the mid-1990s.  In fact, Middle C was titled that in part because it was supposed to be the second of a trio of novellas, all with titles beginning with “C,” but the story of Joseph Skizzen kept expanding until Gass had a complete novel on his hands.  Presumably the novellas included in Eyes will be the companion pieces to Middle C.  Very little of that work has seen the light of publication, so not much is known about it.  One can rest fairly certain, however, that it will feature sexual language but no sexual scenes—unless they are absurdly comedic ones.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Brans, Jo.  “Games of the Extremes:  An Interview with William Gass.”  Ammon 96-110.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—-. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—-. On Being Blue:  A Philosophical Inquiry.  1976.  Boston, MA:  David R. Godine, 2007.  Print.

—-.  The Tunnel.  1995.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 2007.  Print.

—-.  Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  1968.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 1998.  Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Hix, H.L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lane, Anthony.  “No Pain, No Gain:  Fifty Shades of Grey.”  The New Yorker.  23 Feb. 2015.  Web.  15 Feb. 2015. [link]

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass:  The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 17-38. [link]

Note: I would like to thank Craig Saper, who sent me a pdf of his art book On Being Read, published in a limited edition by Diane Fine in 1985, as it was inspired by Gass’s On Being Blue.

Interview with Beth Gilstrap: I Am Barbarella

Posted in February 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2015

In 2011 Beth Gilstrap, an MFA candidate at Chatham University, contacted me by email about interviewing me (ironically) for The Fourth River literary journal. My first novel, Men of Winter, had been released at the end of 2010, and I was anticipating my publisher bringing out another book, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, so our conversation focused mainly on writing those two works. Beth and I exchanged a few emails, and then wrapped things up with a phone conversation. My publisher reneged on bringing out my second book, and things ended badly between my publisher and me — but it was the proverbial final straw in convincing me to establish my own press, which I did, Twelve Winters, in 2012. I eventually brought out a revised and expanded edition of Men of Winter and also Weeping with an Ancient God. I wanted to reprint the Fourth River interview in each of the books, so I contacted Beth asking for her permission. I checked in on her website in 2013 and again in 2014 to update her biographical information that I included when I reprinted the interview, and I noted each time her growing list of publications.

I Am Barbarella front cover

Then, in 2014, I was reading fiction submissions for Quiddity literary journal, and a familiar name popped up in my Submittable queue, Beth Gilstrap and her story “Juveniles Lack Green,” which I admired very much. And I obviously wasn’t alone in that opinion, as it was given the thumbs up by several readers and ultimately the fiction editor, David Logan. The story ran in issue 7.1 of the journal. Beth’s story appearing in my reader’s queue was serendipitous because not long after that I was scouting around for projects for Twelve Winters, and I recalled Beth’s story. Given the number of published stories that she’d accumulated I figured she must have a collection ready for publication. I emailed her to see if that was the case . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. I was impressed by the composite collection that she’d created, and I’m very happy to say that I Am Barbarella was released in print February 19, 2015. Digital editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and Beth is working on an audiobook as well.

Turn about is fair play, so I sent Beth some questions about her collection and the writing of it. What follows are her unedited responses.

Beth author photo

I Am Barbarella is a composite collection (or short story cycle), where we have a fairly large cast of characters who show up in various stories, or are alluded to, or events in their lives from other stories are alluded to.  What drew you to this form for the book?

I went into my MFA program with a novel chapter and an idea for a fairly complicated story told in the first-person plural point of view. It was an attempt to capture a sort of Southern noir small town groupthink as I saw it. As you might expect, there was little left of my self-esteem or the story by the end of my first workshop. I still like the idea of that story, but I was nowhere close to being able to tackle something so left of center. Then, my mentors (Sherrie Flick, Diane Goodman, and Robert Yune) suggested reading books like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and that was when I decided I loved this approach to longer works. This type of book is a hybrid form. I set out to write stories that would be able to stand on their own and have been able to place a number of them as short stories, but they also work thematically in the collection.

It was my intention from the beginning to explore the impact these characters’ actions had on each other, the sort of ripple effect of secrets and heartache. Even the stories that aren’t interconnected on a character level are spiritually connected. I fell in love with the mosaic form. I like how the picture looks when you pull the camera back to reveal the structure in its entirety and I like moving in and looking at the individual tiles such as the elderly neigbhor’s lifelong secret from her best friend or the Dad’s desire to finally leave now that all his family duties have been fulfilled. It felt more playful than a traditional narrative form and I hope I structured it in a way that builds tension — a sort of slow reveal of each character.

How do you think a composite collection differs, in the writing of it, from a collection of independent stories, or a full-fledged novel?

I think it’s an extremely difficult form for a first book. It’s a bit like juggling and having someone on the sidelines who keeps throwing other objects into the mix. Maintaining consistency with such a large interconnected cast of characters and a broad timeline takes major organization and commitment. It is something you must set out to do. What I lacked in organization in the beginning, I made up for with a general idea of what I wanted to achieve and a rabid determination to make this book in this form work. This is my first book and writing it taught me so much about how to approach the novel I am working on now. In some ways, it made writing straight short stories more difficult because I tend to get attached to characters and want to spend more time with them.

You were rethinking the order of the stories up until a few weeks before the book went to press.  How difficult was it to come up with what you felt was the proper order?  What were some of your guiding principles in ordering the stories as you have?

It was all about the tension for me. I had a handful of other stories from the Loretta/Hardy/Janine cycle, but once I took those out and put in some of the shorter flash pieces, I liked the conversation the stories had with each other. These stories move along a continuum of existential angst. I originally had “Spaghettification” last because I felt the last line of that story was a hopeful way to end. Last lines matter as much as first lines. I tend toward the dark side of the force, but not always, and I wanted to highlight that fact, but in the end “B-Sides” was the natural ending of the book. Thematically, the book needed to end with Janine’s point of view. There’s a line in an earlier story, which reads, “You can get so much from B-Sides.” How can you not end with the story with a title built from that line?

How much time have you spent with these characters?  In other words, when did you start writing about them?  Do you plan to return to some of them in future projects?

I wrote the first draft of the first story (“Paper Fans”) in 2010. Four and a half years. I am finished with most of these characters, but my novel does include Dim and Sunday from “Yard Show.” It’s a tiny story that has led me into writing a rather large book.

Charlotte, North Carolina, where you were born and raised and still live, is a common setting for the stories.  Some of the characters have also spent time in Pittsburgh, where you earned your MFA.  How important is “place” in your writing?

For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.

Sometimes a character says things that aren’t kind about your hometown.  How much of that criticism of Charlotte is purely fictive, and how much is your own sense of the place?

Some of it is fictive and based on the perception of Charlotte as nothing but banks, barbecue, and Nascar (Even The Onion did a piece on Charlotte), but a great deal of it comes from a natural desire to break away from my hometown. Most people I grew up with have moved away. When I meet someone and tell him or her I’m from Charlotte, I am usually met with shock. Most folks who live here aren’t from here. I started this book immediately after our plans to move to Pittsburgh fell apart. I was heartbroken. As I wrote the book, I realized I had not ever committed to my town. I had not tried to find kindred spirits here or participate. I no longer take my beautiful city for granted even if I still long for more of a literary community here. As a vegetarian artist who has never been terribly interested in sports, it has been difficult, but I also recognize how much I tend to isolate myself. That’s the tough thing about connecting with other writers. I know there are some here, but we’re all so terribly introverted we never socialize.

How do you think the book will be received by residents of Charlotte?  Perhaps even family and friends who may see themselves reflected in your writing?

I hope people will recognize the truth in the book’s (and its author’s) complicated relationship with Charlotte. As far as friends and family, I hope if they see themselves, they’ll recognize that I’ve tried to draw each character with empathy. Most characters are not based on any one person, though. These characters are processed in my brain blender. They are little bits of me and everyone I’ve known swirled together into a version of truth. This is why I love fiction.

Music plays an important part in many of the stories — and in fact you compiled a playlist to accompany the book.  Where does that emphasis on music come from?  Are you a musician yourself?

I am not a musician, but I’ve always wished I’d learned to play an instrument. My older brother is the musician in the family. He got his first guitar when I was ten. His learning to play and compose and write was my background music. I watched and wrote in my notebook. There were times, like when he went through his black metal phase, that I wanted to take a chainsaw to his guitar, but now I am so grateful for it. It was such a unique experience. We were alone a lot since we were children of a single mom and we challenged each other to be creative. He encouraged me to tell stories. I listened to everything he did and all the records he played. I dated his band mates as a teenager and went to their gigs and though I rarely talked, I listened and wrote. I wrote my first album review for the high school paper. I married a man who worked in a record store when he was young. Music is vital in our home. I cannot write, cook, drive, or take a walk without it.

You’ve taken on the role of editor-in-chief of Atticus Review.  How does that role impact your own writing, or your artistic sensibilities?

Well, as I’ve adjusted to the job and addressed a submission queue of greater than 600, I’ve definitely spent less time on my own writing. I’m still trying to find the balance between being an editor and being a writer. I am a work in progress, but I am proud of what we’ve done at Atticus in a short time. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to put other people’s work into the world, to give back in that way. It is so exciting to discover a story in the slush pile and to be able to make someone happy. It has taught me to be more patient with my own submissions and it has also taught me patterns in what types of stories are overdone. I won’t be writing any dystopias anytime soon. And I always valued personal rejections before, but now that I’m an editor myself I value them even more. It really is a big deal to receive one.

Describe your writing process.

When I am at my best, I am extremely diligent about my process. I have a schedule for myself and I stick to it. I read early in the morning, walk my border collie (when it’s not in the single digits outside), and write for the rest of the afternoon — usually 4-5 hours. Lately, it’s been taken up with editing work. I hope to get back to my regular schedule once I have my sea legs as an editor.

You’ve been working on an audio edition of I Am Barbarella.  Do you tend to read your work aloud usually?  Describe the experience of recording the stories.  Do you think they’re well-suited to oral performance?

I always read my work aloud. It’s part of my editing process. If I trip over words or don’t like the way a sentence flows as I read aloud, I revise. Recording is frustrating, but I think the final product will be great. I don’t think my book would sound right read by someone else. Maybe that means I have control issues, but most of my favorite recordings are author-read — they’re these little time capsules. Nothing compares to being able to hear that rare recording of Virginia Woolf’s or Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And yes, I think most “Southern” literature is well-suited to oral performance. My grandfather never learned to read, but he was the best storyteller I knew. We’re trained for it, whether we realize it or not.

Beth Gilstrap’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, among them Ambit, Superstition Review, Quiddity and the minnesota review. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh and serves as editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she still lives with her husband and enough rescue pets to keep life interesting. (Author photo by Tatyana M. Semyrog)