12 Winters Blog

An Interview with John Paul Jaramillo: Little Mocos

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2017

I’ve known John Paul Jaramillo for several years. Shortly after my first novel, Men of Winter, came out, John Paul interviewed me for a video journal that he edited. He also had a book out, a collection of stories titled The House of Order (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011), which, I discovered, had garnered John Paul much praise and several accolades. Fast forward to, I believe, 2014. John Paul shared with me a manuscript for a book he’d spent quite a bit of time writing and revising (and revising). It was a novel of sorts, comprised of more than thirty interconnected stories and vignettes, a complex family saga that unfolded over decades and multiple generations.

John Paul’s main interest was getting my feedback on the manuscript. I had relied on John Paul’s opinion and expert eye more than once, sharing my own work with him as well as work by some of the authors I was publishing via Twelve Winters Press. I was interested in doing more than giving him feedback on his book; I very much wanted to publish it. I think he was genuinely surprised. We were having coffee at Wm. Van’s Coffee House in Springfield, Illinois. It was summertime so we both had a bit more time on our hands than we normally would during the academic year. We sat there over our coffees talking for a long while.

My sense was that John Paul had worked on the book for so long and had received so much advice, so many critiques, he wasn’t sure any longer quite what he wanted the book to be. So I asked him to take a few months, perhaps enough time to let some of that advice fade away, and figure out exactly what he wanted to publish. The book did go through some changes, including a title change, before he submitted the more or less final version of the manuscript, which I then assigned to one of the Press’s talented and dedicated editors, Pamm Collebrusco, who worked with John Paul to finalize (now) Little Mocos for publication.

I fell behind the publishing schedule I’d hoped to adhere to, but John Paul was consummately patient. We finalized a book cover this past winter; then this summer we were able, at long last, to make available to the world Little Mocos, a novel in stories, available in hardcover and digital editions.

LITTLE MOCOS -- DIGITAL COVER 1000

It’s become a tradition that when I publish an author’s work, I also give them some interview questions. What follows are John Paul’s unedited responses.

My sense is that Little Mocos had a long gestation. When you and I first discussed the manuscript it had a different title, and you talked about a few incarnations of the text. Would you talk about the writing and development of the book?

I’ve been working on this particular book Little Mocos and a grouping of stories for five years I believe. I have always known my writing process is incredibly slow and meandering. I often say it is a mis-perspective that writers have an ease with words and language, because I feel it is the opposite—writers struggle to capture the right words and structure. I have an idea and I like to give myself the time to follow that idea and see where the language or my thoughts take me. I don’t think I am the kind of writer who just sits and executes the outline, premise or story—I have to take time and find the story arc and premise and find the surprises. I have to think and re-think and find the ideas rather than drive them. Also I think I am the kind of writer that is always looking for the better angle into the story in terms of means of perception. So there are drafts on my computer in third person and first person and just different experiments to find the right way to approach the stories I want to tell. Drafts that include or exclude different characters. Fragments that fail and fragments that succeed. Writing and drafting a book is incredibly difficult, and taming that and coming to terms with that takes a long while. Also an editor friend and mentor of mine Jennifer C. Cornell has given me advice and guidance to tweak the book to the current organization. I always need help and I am always second-guessing the manuscript as well as my choices.

At one point you were calling the book “a novel” and then altered that to “a novel in stories.” As a writer I’ve been struggling a bit with those labels myself on a particular project. What do you think the difference is, and why did you ultimately decide on the latter label?

John Paul 1I feel as though I work in a way to send stories out to get feedback from editors. So my work is intentionally worked out in bite-size chunks. Also I think I am a minimalist so always trying to do more with less. And most publications or lit websites I admire are looking for short pieces—one needs to be a bit more experienced and known for a novel excerpt I believe. I usually label something a short story rather than a chapter though I believe a chapter and a short story are similar in many ways—they both have a beginning, middle and end. I also seem to float back to the same “universe” of characters and that keeps them together. I often say the material comes how it comes and I follow it. I hear stories or read stories about Colorado and just try and get them re-imagined and down into bite-size chunks for publication. I’ve always advised my students to create relationships with editors who publish similar work and I’ve tried to submit and gather feedback from Latino lit publications to help with revision and these aesthetic choices. I guess simply the label “novel-in-stories” or “composite novel” or even “novella” comes back to the writer’s decisions and style.

I mean I’ve always known I have a sort of disjointed sort of style. I have always written smaller stories following the same characters, and I’ve always felt these smaller stories as “complete and autonomous.” Interrelated enough yet at the same time creating a complete whole. Creating a story arc the way a novel would. And I’ve never liked fiction too on-the-nose. I like a rougher feel to the writing. Like punk music or something. But as it comes down to the wire on revisions and I get closer and closer to turning over the manuscript to the publisher I struggle with labeling the work a novel-in-stories, composite novel or just plain stories as well. Making decisions is difficult.

The one guiding organizational principle to the book is thematic but also follows the same characters and quite nearly stays in a similar place. The family I am writing about has a family tree that is broken and winding and shattered and so the structure should mirror that. Astillarse, one character describes in the book, or splintered.

My book features a composite structure from what Chapter 1 from The Composite Novel—a book I read once by Margaret Dunn and Ann Morris—classifies as the following: Setting—(all my work takes place in the old neighborhood); Protagonist—I follow the Ortiz family; Collective protagonist–the family and neighborhood in different time periods and perspectives; Pattern/patchwork—identical or similarly themed stories focusing on trouble, problems, work/joblessness, etc.

I know some of the elements of the book, for example the character Cornbread Vigil, are pulled directly from history, while others, I presume, are purely fictional. In your writing process how did you negotiate history and fiction, and I suppose those gray areas in between?

Cornbread Vigil is a character based on a man named Ray Baca who is pretty infamous in Colorado—his name appeared in the newspaper quite often. He was a local criminal from my old neighborhood of Pueblo, Colorado, who folks often talked about. Mostly they talked about how they were afraid of him. My Grandfather talked about him since he robbed some local places. He was a person who had multiple crimes attached to him and he was the kind of person who always seemed to get out of trouble—petty crimes and thefts. He became somewhat of a local infamous character but also a weird folk hero/character. In my mind he represents the complex place I was raised and also the moral problem young Latino males perhaps face growing up. The violent expression that is sometime nurtured. I had so few literary or teacher heroes growing up but my heroes were “around-the-way” kinds of heroes at least when I was very young.

I think in much of my writing I try to take these stories from the paper and try to imagine or re-imagine them. To try and make sense of them, especially the darker or the more senseless stories. It felt as if this Baca criminal was from the same place I was from and I always found that to be very interesting. He always represented the myths and flavor of Colorado, and I wanted to re-create and re-imagine his story and how it merged with some of my own family.

You and I have discussed some of the difficulties presented by using Spanish and Spanish slang in the text, particularly when it came to dealing with editors and finding a publisher. Could you discuss some of the issues that you encountered?

I try to create relationships with Latino lit publications—with editors more sympathetic to the use of Spanish in a manuscript. This seems to be a very American issue. I always try to write the way folks talk in Southern Colorado and they speak Spanish and I guess Spanglish would be the term. A blending of Spanish and English—incorrect Spanish and incorrect English. But I have a collection of emails and responses from editors who were pretty aggressive in wanting me to take out the Spanish or to make the stories somewhat of a caricature of how folks speak in Colorado. Perhaps it was my fault for not knowing the publication well enough. There are so few Latino publications. I guess I want to represent but not sell-out anyone from my old neighborhoods.

Also though there is a professional dimension where Latinos who speak fluent Spanish will question my decision to omit or to use italics with Spanish in the stories. One writer I admire has Spanish italicized in all of his work and yet criticized me for my decision to italicize in my last publication. The idea being the language is not foreign so one shouldn’t italicize it. Until only recently I have become confident enough to edit what I choose in my own manuscripts and fight for more of my aesthetic choices. I see the whole problem as just working with presses who are sympathetic or understanding of these representation issues or not. I’ve received complaints from some editors and emails from some readers who say I’ve captured the way folks in Colorado speak accurately. So perhaps this is also an issue of representation of place as well as representation of the Spanish language in stories.

Little Mocos covers similar territory to your first book, The House of Order. In fact, one of the stories in Little Mocos is titled “House of Order.” How do these projects connect? In what ways does Little Mocos extend or perhaps complicate some of the elements in The House of Order?

The House of Order was a collection of stories published in differing publications and collected in somewhat of a linear narrative structure though missing quite a bit of backstory to the families and relationships. Little Mocos is the fuller story. Readers of The House of Order didn’t read it as a collection of stories but read it as a novel and this book is the novel bringing in many similar stories that have been tweaked to act as a portion of a larger story rather than to just act as a standalone story. There is more time and room to explore the family and legacy only hinted at, I think, in the collection of short pieces. I wanted to tell the fuller and larger trajectory of the story here. I very much see this novel as a continuation and sequel of sorts to that earlier book.

Little Mocos is divided into six parts which vary considerably in terms of length. What was your organizing principle in determining how to fit the various stories together? Ultimately do you feel satisfied with the structure of the book, or is there anything that still nags at you in the middle of the night?

I have a hard time telling a linear story. Also like many other writers, Leslie Marmon Silko as the greatest influence on me, I wanted to tell a story that was not linear but more at liberty with the timeline. The timeline or the structure is circular almost. Later in the book the narrator is criticized for overly thinking on past events in the story and I think that is similar to me. I am drawn to family stories and family history and my mind is rarely in the moment but racing in time to backstory and I wanted that feel in the book. I like to recreate moments of simply sitting and recounting the past. I am not so much interested in linear stories, I guess, but stories that represent the complexity of past and present relationships. I feel that I carry my family with me and the movement in time from section to section is my way to recreate that in the structure. Also I am more and more interested in this idea of legacy and family spirits that mold an individual. I feel I carry my Uncle and Father who have passed away with me in my everyday decision-making as well as in the genetic similarity of appearance and personality. Family trauma is always at the heart of my stories and the stories I like to read and so again this is my way of re-creating that familial dimension to a daily life.

I do very much feel satisfied with the structure though I’m drafting new stories all the time I wish could’ve found their way into the final manuscript—drafts that fill-in certain characters’ back story. I’m always drafting and note-taking on the Bea character and the Tio Neto character though I know they won’t find their way into the fuller story because of deadlines for turning in drafts. I guess what keeps me up would be exploring more stories with these characters and including all of them in one manuscript.

I know your teaching takes up a lot of time and energy. How do you balance teaching and writing? How does teaching and working with your students inform and energize your writing?

I teach composition and literature and I keep a blog on teaching and writing, so this is something I think all writers who work in schools may struggle with—the balance of time. I teach many classes to pay the bills and also teach creative writing. And I think all of my classes represent my thinking about the written word and also books I admire. I think as a writer I am perhaps a bit more skilled to teach about form or structure of writing as well as meaning. I have an MFA in creative writing instead of an MA or PhD and so I feel I might speak differently about writing and reading than say someone who studied literary criticism theory. I often say I have a degree in writing rather than in the study of writing since I see myself as a creative writer first and foremost, rather than as a researcher, teacher, or critic. Writers rarely think about meaning or theme and yet most classes and most instructors lecture on dominant themes and dominant interpretation, and I am more interested in how the writer or the character is represented in the work. I think there is a large distinction between what a work is saying and how the work is constructed. As a writer I am rarely thinking about what I am trying to say and more and more interested in how to construct a more dynamic experience for the reader. I like the idea that perhaps I can bring a different perspective on writing as a writer than say a lit scholar.

Other than finalizing Little Mocos for publication by the press, you’ve been done with the book for quite awhile. What else have you been working on? Is writing fiction your only interest, or have you explored other modes of writing?

Little Mocos in many ways is a love letter to my father’s side of my family. The last story in the book is about my mother’s family. While Little Mocos is an entire book about my father and his relationship to his brother and father, I have a whole manuscript of material I’ve been working on that follows the relationship between my mother and her father. Again I am interested in family legacy and family trauma. This manuscript is tentatively titled Monte Stories or Mountain Stories as my mother’s side of the family is from the San Luis Valley in Colorado and that is where most of these stories take place. I am more and more obsessed with my mother’s father and his life in the San Luis Valley. Recently I’ve had a story from this manuscript featured at La Casita Grande Lounge—a website for Chicano and Latino literature.  I have a good dozen of these stories I am slowly hoping to build into another book taking place in the same Colorado universe of characters.

I have also been working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays. Most of my favorite fiction writers are also my favorite essayists. I hope to turn more of my blog post son teaching and writing and on the Colorado steel industry into essays. I am also hoping to write more memoir-styled essays. Essays that read as short stories but driven more by facts. I have always written little fragments of reviews and recounting of experiences on my blog and I hope to conduct more interviews and also gather more of these essays for a non-fiction collection. I am interested in the steel industry in Colorado and its history as well as the subject of being a Latino male in the teaching profession.


John Paul Jaramillo’s  stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Acentos ReviewPALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art and Somos en Escrito. In 2013 his collection The House of Order was named an International Latino Book Award Finalist. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. Originally from Colorado, he lives in Springfield, Illinois, where he is a professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College. (Author photo by Polly Parsons)

 

Interview with E. S. Holland: City of Broad Shoulders

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 26, 2015

My wife Melissa and I went to the Chicago Book Expo last December, held at Columbia College, and it turned out to be a great networking opportunity–in fact, greater than we realized at the time. Little did we know that one of the many folks who stopped by our Twelve Winters Press table was scouting publishers for a friend. About a month after the Expo, in early January 2015, I received an email from a woman who had a book she was shopping. It didn’t seem quite right for Twelve Winters Press, but I found her email engaging–for one thing, she was a fan of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, as am I–so I asked her to send me the manuscript. I really enjoyed reading it, but it definitely was beyond the scope that I’d always envisioned for Twelve Winters.

However, Melissa and I were already planning to expand the Press’s mission by establishing a children’s literature imprint, Shining Hall (we published Shawna’s Sparkle in July), so we thought maybe we could expand in another direction as well. After several email conversations with the woman who’d written the entertaining little book, I accepted it for publication, and in the summer we established Maidenhead Hall, a publisher of smart erotica, to bring out the book. At the end of September we proudly released City of Broad Shoulders: An Esmée Anderson Experience (No. 1), by E. S. Holland. The book is available in printKindle and Nook editions.

author image - cropped

I like to publish an interview with my authors upon the release of their books. Normally it’s just a matter of trading emails, but with Ms. Holland’s globetrotting, it proved to be a bit more challenging. What follows is the interview, which has been edited together from emails, Facebook Messenger exchanges, and a phone call (I had to get up a 2 a.m. to catch her, but at least it was in the summer and I was back in bed by 3).

City of Broad Shoulders Front Cover

You’d written and published other kinds of writing, but City of Broad Shoulders is your first piece of erotica, if I’m not mistaken. What motivated you to work in this genre, and what was your inspiration for this particular story?

I’ve always been a writer, and I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t making up stories in my head and jotting them down. But, yes, before Broad Shoulders it’d mainly been poetry and travel writing, with occasional French-to-English or English-to-French translations, mainly of poetry. There were a lot of reasons I wanted to try my hand at adult material—at literary erotica—and not the least of which is the challenge of it. I’ve taken a few writing workshops, and I’ve read a lot of articles and interviews about writing; and it seems universally recognized that writing “sex scenes” is especially tricky. So, on the one hand, I was attracted to the challenge of it. In grad school I went through a Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin phase, and I admired how they had mastered all kinds of narrative, including erotica.

But, quite honestly, I’d have to credit the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon for giving me that final push into the “adult” genre. The books are so bad, so poorly written and so degrading to women (and men too I think), and yet so incredibly popular—I thought there must be a type of reader who is aching for intimate writing, and, if so, they’re surely craving intimate writing that is better than Fifty Shades. I hope they’ll find Broad Shoulders better than Fifty Shades, in many ways.

So, in a sense, City of Broad Shoulders is kind of an anti-Fifty Shades?

Not that I was sitting around writing, sneering at a picture of E. L. James for inspiration, or anything like that. But I know the book had an effect. My friends and I, and especially my writers’ group, talked a lot about the books and then eventually the movie, aghast at how terrible the writing is, and how terrible the messages are that the series broadcasts to both women and men. Because of my profession, I travel a lot, a lot, and for months it seemed that no matter where in the world I was, all these young women were walking around with copies of the books. I’d go into a coffeehouse, it didn’t matter where—New York, LA, London, Paris, Milan—and there would be at least someone reading one of the books. Usually a young woman, often an adolescent, and I had to wonder what lessons they were taking away from the books.

One of my degrees is in psychology, so I couldn’t help thinking what a number the books were doing on the girls’ sense of self, and how it was impacting their budding sexual identities. For many, I’m sure they’d had no real sexual encounters, and probably hadn’t read anything so explicit before—so their introduction (at least their print introduction) to male-female intimacy involved violence, degradation, obsessions, fetishes, and all the unhealthy behaviors were o.k., were forgivable, because the perpetrator was rich and good-looking. And because the young woman thought so little of herself, had such low self-esteem, she mistook his exploitation of her for love.

You shouldn’t have got me started . . .

But I know from other conversations we’ve had that you don’t see your book as being political, as being some sort of polemic against Fifty Shades.

Yes, absolutely. I’m sure Christian and Ana and their fucked-up relationship are lurking somewhere in the background, but really Broad Shoulders is intended to be a fun and funny book. I think the fact that the first-person narrator, Esmée, is a smart, independent, take-charge woman who enjoys consensual, mutually respectful sex is what makes it fun and funny—or at least I hope that’s how readers react to it. That’s how my writer friends reacted to it.

Your writers’ group, who meet at the café, you begin your acknowledgments by recognizing their friendship, and the contribution of sharing the details of their “escapades.” How crucial were they to writing Broad Shoulders?

I can’t overstate how crucial they were. Normally I’d share pretty serious stuff—poetry, and my dabbling at translations, that sort of thing—but one afternoon I showed up with this thing I’d been writing in the voice of this smart-alecky chick, this American with a French name, Esmée. I just had two or three pages, but pretty soon we were laughing and swapping stories (even more than usual). I didn’t quite know what I had on my hands, but over the next several weeks I figured out who Esmée is and what sort of story she wanted to tell. So I let her.

Who is Esmée Anderson? You share the same occupation, which might lead one to conclude she’s you.

She’s a little me, of course, or I’m a little her—and she’s definitely bits and pieces of my writers’ group. After all, she’s pretty experienced for a young woman. She’s done a lot of living (and a lot of loving) for one person. A writer gets to exercise some artistic license.

City of Broad Shoulders is “An Esmée Anderson Experience” number-one, so obviously others are planned. Talk about that if you would.

As you know, I’m planning to write other “Experiences”—there are a lot of stories to tell, and I enjoyed writing the first one. Once I got my sea legs with Esmée, it came together fairly easily, all things considered. Hopefully they’ll find an audience, and hopefully you’ll want to continue to publish them. I like that Maidenhead [Hall] is bringing them out in print as well as Kindle and Nook. My sense is those are different markets. I prefer print, but as much as I travel, my e-books are essential.

Speaking of your traveling, I have to ask, what exactly is “the exotic travel industry”?

It’s basically guiding people off the beaten path—and guiding them back safe and sound. We do all manner of experiences, and it’s never boring; that’s for sure.

Like what, for example? I’ve barely been out of the Midwest.

Let’s see, in just the last year, I’ve arranged two photo safaris in Africa, a diving-with-sharks experience in Australia, a birdwatching hike in the Andes, a pilgrimage to a remote shrine in Tibet—things like that.

Things like that. So how far does your guiding go? Did you dive with sharks?

Like I said, guides have to get clients there, wherever there is, and get them back safe and sound, which means we often can’t fully immerse ourselves in the experience. So, no, I didn’t actually try to pet a Great White or anything—which was o.k. with me. I’m oddly unadventurous for someone who makes her living setting up adventures for others.

E. S. Holland holds degrees in psychology, kinesiology, and comparative literature. She has been an au pair, a university research assistant, and a personal yoga instructor. Since 2012 she has worked in the exotic travel industry. The daughter of parents with careers in foreign service, she has lived all over the world and calls no place in particular home. Under a different name, she has published poetry, travel writing, and translations in small journals, mainly in Europe. City of Broad Shoulders is her first book. (Photos by John Peri)

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.