12 Winters Blog

Writing Too Good to Publish

Posted in April 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 21, 2019

The following paper — “Writing Too Good to Publish: A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland” — was presented at the North American Review Writing Conference, April 19-21, 2019, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of the panel “Published Worlds.” Other papers presented were “Something About a Frying Pan and a Fire: Why I Gave up a Tenured Position and Launched a Publishing Imprint” by Kathy Flann, and “To Publish or Not to Publish” by Sayeed Ahmad.


 

I want to begin by updating the title of this talk. To the main title “Writing Too Good to Publish,” I’m adding “A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland.” I see my presentation as a semi-formal prologue to a paper I’m presenting in July at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon. That paper is on the loss of the literary voice and its ramifications for society. Today my main objective is to generate some thought and discussion, and I’m building my talk around observations by my literary idol William H. Gass, who quipped in a 1971 interview, regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it,” adding, “I live on that hope.” Gass was suggesting, nearly fifty years ago, that in the publishing world there was emerging a negative correlation between the quality of a book and its likelihood for publication.

Gass imposingSo at the root of my talk is the question: Has Gass’s darkly humorous prediction come true? That is, in 2019 can one produce such a well-written book that no publisher will touch it—or at least no major publisher? Since I’ve gone to the trouble of proposing this topic for the writing conference and putting together some thoughts regarding it, you can no doubt surmise that my answer to the question is yes.

First, I acknowledge that my working thesis is bathed in subjectivity. What, for example, constitutes a “good book”? What did Gass mean by the term in 1971, and is his meaning relevant today? For that matter, what is a “major” publisher?

This last question is perhaps the simplest to answer, so I’ll begin there. When I refer to major publishers, I’m thinking of what Publisher’s Weekly calls the “Big Five” (Milliot), commercial publishers who have the wherewithal to publish an author in a massive press run, and promote the work in a way that will get it reviewed by the top reviewers, put it in the running for prestigious prizes, prominently placed in bookstores, and purchased by libraries far and wide. Publisher’s Weekly identifies the Big Five as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (at least as of 2017). Just outside the Big Five is Scholastic. A quick perusal of book spines in Barnes & Noble (the only nationwide bookseller remaining) would suggest there are a lot more commercial publishers than a mere handful, but it’s misleading because these big publishers have been buying up smaller presses for decades, so what appear to be dozens of New York-based publishers are in fact entities which fall under the auspices of a few parent companies.

Cormac McCarthyFor these parent companies, profit is the number-one driving force; in fact, nearly the only force. The situation is efficiently summarized in Daniel Robert King’s Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016). McCarthy’s first publisher was Random House, but “[b]y 1962 Random House was on the path to becoming a big business” (21). King goes on, “In the context of the American publishing industry as a whole, it was the purchase of Random House by RCA in 1965 that marked the real beginning” of book publishers being purchased by corporations whose main financial interest wasn’t publishing books (22). During McCarthy’s time at Random House, presidents came and went, and with each successor there may have been more attention paid to profit and less to literary quality. Perhaps the low point was reached in 1980 with the installment of Alberto Vitale, a former banker who André Schiffrin describes as a “business man with a thuggish disposition and a thoroughly anti-intellectual attitude—the pose of a rough-and-ready street fighter who gets things done and isn’t afraid to do what it takes to make as much money as possible” (qtd. in King 22-23). Chief among Vitale’s changes to the Random House modus operandi, writes Schiffrin, was “that each book should make a profit on its own and that one title should no longer be allowed to subsidize another” (23). This pressure for each book to make a profit has led to a high turnover rate among editors at corporate publishing houses, and agents have replaced editors as “the fixed points in authors’ lives,” according to Schiffrin (23).

By extension, then, agents have had to become more preoccupied with profit potential than the weighty quality of the work. Being a literary agent is not charity work, after all, so what good does it do to take on a project unless one is reasonably certain it can catch the eye of a market-minded editor?

Up until the corporate takeover of the publishing world, which began in the 1960s, editors at places like Random House would find talented writers and nurture their careers until sales could catch up. As King notes, “Random House took on and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, it was due to the persistence of McCarthy’s editor Albert Erskine that McCarthy’s earliest titles even stayed in print. Had it not been for Erskine’s clout and consistent badgering, Random House might have let McCarthy’s titles go out of print (32-33). Ultimately, McCarthy’s novels were moved to Knopf, which by then, in the early 1990s, had been fully acquired by Random House as an imprint for its “loss leaders”—“low-selling books which add prestige to a company’s name . . . despite their underwhelming sales” (103-104).

Knopf was William Gass’s publisher as well, beginning with the hardcover reprint of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in 1971. The outrageously experimental novella was originally published as a special supplement by the literary journal TriQuarterly in 1968. Nineteen seventy-one was of course the year Gass made his comment about writing such a good book no one would publish it. Knopf did publish it, in 1995, and it won a few accolades, including the American Book Award in 1996, but it must have been commercially challenging, especially given Gass’s ambitions for the book’s design. For example, the hardcover edition includes several full-color illustrations. HarperCollins produced a paperback edition in 1996, and just three years later Gass appealed to the small press Dalkey Archive to produce another paperback edition to keep The Tunnel in print. (In 1989, Dalkey began reprinting Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in paperback.)

Gass worked on The Tunnel for 26 years, and various parts of it were published in more than a dozen literary journals (and in two instances, limited and signed editions by boutique presses). Meanwhile, the publishing industry went through its transformations, along with the reading public. Gass labored on The Tunnel for nearly three decades (along with numerous other projects) in spite of the fact he didn’t expect the novel to receive a hero’s welcome once it was published. He said in 1981, for example, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of these things is always problematic. It isn’t simply that I have a small audience. Most of the writers I admire don’t really have much of an audience” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly more aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once the leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

Indeed, by the time The Tunnel finally emerged in book form, Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

So as the publishing industry transformed from the 1960s onward, with a greater and greater emphasis on profit over literary merit, what sorts of writers were being picked up by the Big Five? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). The Internet Age was still an embryo when Gass made this observation. Since then, how much faster have our minds become, how much more inclined toward simplistic texts that can be skimmed at a lightning pace—if read at all?

Obviously, the historical and cultural forces which have led us here are too complicated to explore in such a brief talk, but it may be worth noting that the corporate takeover of the publishing industry and reading’s decline in popularity have been concurrent with the rise and fall of literary postmodernism. Anis Shivani has suggested that by the end of the twentieth century too many fiction writers were engaged in a “pale” imitation of postmodern pioneers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover (Shivani et al. 226). He said, “We’re suffering in different ways from the huge wave of appropriation, mixing, and flattening that carried all of us along with it” (227). Shivani further argues that the postmodern effort to “reconcile high and low” culture proved to be a failed experiment. Young writers’ “reverence for junk is too great; they haven’t known anything else but video culture, and they can’t think past it, let alone ironize time and space, restructure it in new narrative” as early postmodernists, like Kurt Vonnegut, were able to do (227). I have only begun to consider possible correlations between the current state of affairs in writing and publishing, and the rise and fall of postmodernism—but I wanted to at least underscore the fact they are historical bedfellows.

I feel I have a unique vantage point regarding the literary landscape. I’m a writer of the sort of stuff spurned by the Big Five. My short fiction and novel excerpts have appeared in nearly 70 journals (including Glimmer Train and Southern Humanities Review) and have earned a few distinctions, but agents and larger publishers remain enthusiastically disinterested. I’ve been teaching high school English in the heartland for 36 years, and I’ve witnessed, in brutal proximity, teenagers’ shrinking interest in reading—reading anything, leave be challenging literature. Indeed, more and more they find the idea of being a reader amusingly quaint and wholly incomprehensible. As a small-press publisher, I’ve discovered that the world is filled with amazing writers and poets who have awe-inspiring manuscripts, but there are practically no readers to be had anywhere. Literally every title I’ve released since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 has taken a loss (in spite of almost no labor costs). As a librarian in my hometown library, I experience the phenomenon of avid readers checking out anything written by James Patterson (or his minions), Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts (or her alter ego J. D. Robb), Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.—but having no interest in sampling fare which may be a wrung or two juicier on the literary food-chain.

Finally, as a lecturer in an online MFA program, I’ve had to reassess what my long-term goals should be. When I first started teaching for Lindenwood University in 2016, I assumed my graduate students would want to be James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or at the very least Ernest Hemingway—but I quickly discovered that for most their aspirations were quite different. They want to be J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, and, yes, James Patterson. I do what I can to open their eyes to other possibilities, but who am I to say their aims are too low? Who am I to doom them to near-certain obscurity by browbeating them in the general direction of Finnegans Wake? Instead, if they so choose, I hope to make them the best version of James Patterson they can be: perhaps to write like James Patterson on his very best day (or the very best day of whichever writer in his stable is writing his book).

Where, then, does that leave us—we dwindling few who love to read and write challenging texts? Gass had to come to terms with this question himself—although he was able to ride the inertial momentum of mid-century publishing to at least maintain his place on Knopf’s list. In my dreariest moods I look to the preface he wrote for the paperback edition of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and I’ll leave you with the Master’s words:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that. (xviii-xix)

 

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Gass, William H. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Shivani, Anis, et al. “Symposium: Is Postmodernism in decline? Why or why not? How do you assess its legacy?” Boulevard, vol. 26, nos. 1-2, 2010, pp. 226-246.

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From Tender Buttons to the “Heart of the Country”: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass

Posted in February 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2019

The following paper, “From Tender Buttons to the ‘Heart of the Country’: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, the University of Louisville, Feb. 23, 2019, as part of the panel Material Readers and the Dynamics of Reception, chaired by Mark Mattes, University of Louisville. Other papers in the panel were “A Publication ‘edited by its readers’: Representation and Materiality in the Working-Class Newspaper Correspondence” by Emily Spunaugle, Wayne State University; and “Thirty Thoughts on Little House on the Prairie and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” [revised title] by Amy Gilley, Arkansas State University, Queretaro.


 

The author “wrote densely and brilliantly and beautifully and perversely and with intense contrivance and deep care and . . . skill” (108). Those too few who are intimately familiar with William H. Gass may have written this description regarding his contribution to belles-lettres. In fact, however, this is how Gass described one of his greatest influences, Gertrude Stein, in his landmark essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence” (1973). Gass always emphatically credited Stein’s influence on his work. He discovered her in graduate school, he said, and made the study of her writing a life-long occupation. (He studied at Cornell in the late 1940s, taking the Ph.D. in philosophy in 1954; and he passed away in 2017.) Yet in all his many discussions of Stein he never expressly linked her experimental poem Tender Buttons (1914) to his experimental short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1967). The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Stein’s early poem had a direct impact on both the substance and the structure of Gass’s story—a story that became the title piece in the collection which solidified his reputation on the national literary stage, and which became the prototype for his magnum opus, the novel The Tunnel, famously 26 years in the writing.

I’ve been presenting papers at the Louisville Conference for, I think, fourteen years, and for the last decade or so my papers have focused exclusively on William H. Gass. Since discovering the Master in 2008 I have become a self-described Gass scholar and disciple—the only one I believe. I must credit the conference specifically for this paper topic. I’m ashamed to admit that until this past year I hadn’t read Tender Buttons. It had been on my must-read list for decades, but last February while browsing the new books in their usual spot on the third floor of the Humanities Building, outside of conference registration, I happened upon a critical edition of Tender Buttons, edited by Leonard Diepeveen, and as soon as I flipped it open I experienced something like déjà vu. Simply, the look of Stein’s text on the page was uncannily similar to the physical appearance of Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” an odd plot-less tale carved up into sections, some brief, some longer, each with its own subtitle. Being well aware of Stein’s influence on Gass in general, I immediately became suspicious that Tender Buttons served as a model for “In the Heart,” and I’ve spent the past year investigating that belief (in fits and starts of course).

When I submitted this paper proposal to the conference committee last summer, I hypothesized that Stein’s influence on the piece was mainly structural—thus my title—but the further I’ve looked into it, I believe the connections are even greater.

A quick refresher on Tender Buttons, which was first published in New York by the avant-garde press Claire Marie in 1914. It is divided into three parts—Objects, Food, and Rooms—with each part being further divided into subtitled pieces, some as brief as a few words, others consisting of several paragraphs. At a glance, Tender Buttons appears to be prose, but Stein called it poetry (more on this to follow). It has the reputation for being all but incomprehensible—although many have taken a stab at unlocking its meanings, including Gass in the essay previously mentioned. Diepeeven states it plainly in the introduction to his critical edition: “For many readers, one could not read Tender Buttons, or understand what it was . . .” (10). I believe his for many readers is generous: most, nearly all would probably be more accurate. The trouble begins immediately with the opening section “A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.”:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. (33)

Similarly, Gass structured “In the Heart of the Heart of Country” as a series of small segments or vignettes, each with its own subtitle (some of which repeat). Among the subtitles are “A Place,” “Weather,” “My House,” “Vital Data,” and “My House, My Cat, My Company.” They vary in length from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs. The story’s first-person narrator is an aging poet who goes about describing his town, his neighbors, and himself; however, there is no easily discernible plot. As far as I know, I’m the only person to see the structure of Tender Buttons in “In the Heart,” and that may be because on the surface, and from the start, Gass invites readers to make comparisons to Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928). The story begins, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” with “B” standing for both a small Indiana town, Brookston, and Yeats’s Byzantium. Moreover, Yeats’s poem is about old age and the struggle to keep one’s artistic flame burning while one’s body slowly deteriorates toward death. Gass’s narrator is an aging poet who is “in retirement from love.” He says, “I’ve lost my years. . . . 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 to me now, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). So, thematically, there are definite correlations between Yeats’s poem and Gass’s story, in addition to the overt clue Gass provides in the opening sentence.

What is more, critics have noted that there are the same number of sections in the story as there are lines in “Sailing to Byzantium,” a fact that Gass did not dispute. In an interview Gass said, “It was pointed out by some anal observer [Larry McCaffery] that the sections of the story and the lines of the poem are the same [thirty-six]. And that’s true . . . That’s a little kind of imposed formality that I did to help shape the work” (qtd. in Hix 48). However, Gass’s acknowledgment is troublesome for a few reasons. McCaffery’s counting is based on the version of the story which appeared in the 1968 collection of the same title, a version which has been subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions, including in The William H. Gass Reader this past year. Yet in its original published form, in New American Review in 1967, the story had significantly fewer sections, only thirty. It’s possible that the difference in the number of sections (and other differences) are the result of editorial intervention; that is, perhaps the changes were necessary for its inclusion in the journal, to pare it back, for example, due to space limitations. The definitive answer to that question may lie in the massive Gass archive at Washington University in St. Louis, an archive which contains tens of thousands of pages (or more) of manuscript drafts, letters, and other material. I have visited the archive a handful of times and have spent perhaps a dozen hours seriously reading through the material there, but suffice it to say I’ve barely scratched proverbial surface.

Nevertheless, the archive’s contents provide the other reason I’m dubious about Gass’s acknowledgment that the number of lines of Yeats’s poem provided a guiding structure for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Among Gass’s papers are myriad drafts of the story which suggest his initial writing of the piece was fairly conventional, meaning that he composed long chunks of text, and then later he cut up and rearranged these smaller chunks until the story achieved its final form (well, one of its final forms). What is more, Gass played with numerous versions of the structure that resulted in its having fewer than thirty-six sections, the number necessary to match Yeats’s number of lines.  Gass made numbered lists and plugged in the various fragmented vignettes; then toyed with moving around the pieces. Some of these numbered lists suggest he had in mind twenty-four subtitled pieces (see figures 1, 2 and 3). Another list, more detailed and messier, reveals that Gass considered the pieces falling into four broad categories, A through D, (reminiscent of Stein’s three categories) of eight vignettes each for a grand total of thirty-two, four short of Yeats’s thirty-six lines (figure 4).

section numbers - no titles

Fig. 1. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

sectioins numbers - more titles

Fig. 2. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

section numbers - more notes

Fig. 3. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

increasing section numbers - many notes

Fig. 4. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

draft of opening - where are you

Fig. 5. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

At this point in his career Gass wrote on a manual typewriter, so the rough drafts of “In the Heart” are on full-size sheets of paper; however, while revising he might rewrite the same paragraph, or part of a paragraph, multiple times on the same sheet (see figure 5, which became part of a long vignette subtitled “Education” in the latter half of the story, in both the 1967 and ’68 versions, section 21/32 and 16/30, respectively). Each of these pieces is suggestive of the index cards Gertrude Stein used to write, by hand, and arrange Tender Buttons (see Appendix B of Diepeveen’s critical edition). So it isn’t that their writing processes were similar while originally drafting their poem and story, but through the process of revision Gass seems to have pared down his longer chunks of text to crystalline bite-size bits of a similar heft to Stein’s index cards, at least in some cases. Gass invested a significant amount of time in considering and rearranging these bits of text, as evidenced by the numberings and revised numberings in the margins of the drafts (figure 6). Without further examination of his papers, I can’t say how pervasive this kind of paring down was in the process of writing “In the Heart,” but I can say it wasn’t wholly unique to this short story. His technique of isolating single paragraphs or parts of paragraphs and revising them again and again, often on the same sheet of typing paper, can be seen in the archive for other works. I can attest to the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968) and parts of The Tunnel (1995). For that matter, a kindred technique became part of the published draft of Middle C (2013), whereby the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, works on rewriting the same brief paragraph throughout the novel, rearranging sentences, substituting words, until he has it perfect. In fact, the reaching of the paragraph’s final form is a kind of climax in the novel.

ms page with numbered sectiions revised

Fig. 6. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

I want to return to Stein’s profound influence on Gass, which he made no bones about. In his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” in which Gass identified the books (and authors) who were most influential on his development as a writer, he listed Stein’s Three Lives and said, “I knew I had found the woman my work would marry” (54). Anyone who knows Gass at all probably knows that his greatest influence was the German poet Rilke. It’s true that Rilke is everywhere in Gass’s work, and he wrote a book about the difficulty of translating Rilke (Reading Rilke, 1999), which he tried his hand at himself. Gass said that Rilke helped to solidify ideas he’d had for years which he’d gotten from other great writers, like Stein: “. . . I had certainly come across and become enamored of Gertrude Stein a lot earlier and Flaubert somewhat, also—they all came together; Rilke just brought them together. . . . He sort of coalesced it all for me.” In particular “Rilke discovers that the poet’s aim is to add something to reality rather than comment on it or express something, to be something” (Ammon 161). Ultimately, said Gass, “you have an [art] object sitting there which is the result of this big cycle from objects observed by the poet or painter and it’s not that the painting is about anything; it is a transformation and a new object in the world” (162).

This concept is key to understanding Gass’s work. His stories, novellas and novels are not interested in advancing a plot via narration—as one would normally think of as the defining feature of fiction—but rather his stories, novellas and novels are interested in being works of art. The characters and their actions (the term plot doesn’t really apply) are a means to an end, and that end is to create a unique piece of literary art. This core artistic aim in Gass can be traced to Gertrude Stein’s philosophy of aesthetics, and Tender Buttons may be her most pure expression of that aesthetic. By the same token, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” may be Gass’s starkest example of the sort of fiction he would become infamous for, fiction which downplayed the typical foci on character development and plot, and instead emphasized stylistic components and thematic repetition.

Stein spoke of her narrative philosophy on numerous occasions, but her second lecture at the University of Chicago in 1935 zeroed in on this aspect of her writing process most directly. “Lecture 2” deals with the distinction between prose and poetry as they had been evolving in the modernist movement after the First World War, a movement of which Stein had been the vanguard for more than twenty years by the time she delivered her Chicago lectures. She said, as only she could,

When one used to think of narrative one meant telling of what is happening in successive moments of its happening the quality of telling depending upon the conviction of the one telling that there was a distinct succession in happening, that one thing happened after something else and since that happening in succession was a profound conviction in every one then really there was no difference whether any one began in the beginning or the middle or the ending because since narrative was a progressive telling of things that were progressively happening it really did not make any difference where you were at what moment you were in your happening since the important part of telling anything was the conviction that anything that everything was progressively happening. But now we have changed all that we really have. (17)

If I may, before modernism prose was defined by the narrative quality of cause and effect, of one event leading to another and then another and another in a story or novel, say. In modernism, however, prose has become like poetry in that there is “not a sense of anything being successively happening” (19). Prose is no longer “being a successive thing but being something existing. That is then the difference between narrative as it has been and narrative as it is now,” explained Stein (20). Or as Liesl M. Olson paraphrases the key idea in her foreword to Narration: “A ‘modern’ narrative need not have an event, according to Stein; nothing need ‘happen’” (ix-x). Thus, Stein called Tender Buttons poetry because even though it has the outward trappings of prose (sentences and paragraphs), ontologically it is poetry in that each piece stands alone as a carefully crafted, multilayered thing of linguistic art. There is no traditional narrative substructure of things happening to characters via cause and effect.

In his essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” Gass said that Tender Buttons is written “in a kind of code . . . a coding which dangerously confounds the surface . . . [which often] effects a concealment.” This concealment, though, is key to understanding Stein’s genius, “because the object of art is to make more beautiful that which is, and since that which is is rarely beautiful, often awkward and ugly and ill-arranged, it must be sometimes sheeted like a corpse, or dissolved into its elements and put together afresh, aright, and originally” (105). This objective of art was embraced by Gass throughout his career as he frequently tried to make the ugly beautiful via the beauty of his language. In The Tunnel, the centerpiece of oeuvre, for example, Gass wrote beautifully about the Holocaust, and attempted to redeem his deplorable first-person narrator through the loveliness of his language.

Gass’s emphasis on language over plot, on style over characterization has made some readers consider his novellas and novels long prose poems, placing them in the same arena as Tender Buttons. Unlike Stein, however, Gass insisted he was not adept at writing poetry. He did say, though, that the best poets of his generation were writers of fiction, naming in particular John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis (Saltzman 91). It would’ve been the height of egotism to list himself, but his was a name that often appeared among them. He readily acknowledged his frequent use of devices more typically attached to poetry. Among his “quirks” he listed in his essay “Retrospection” are “whoring and metaphoring” and “jingling,” which includes his love of alliteration and limericks.

I’ll end where I began. One of the reasons it’s worth considering if Tender Buttons was a model of sorts for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is because Gass stated explicitly that the short story’s structure led him to his most ambitious work, The Tunnel. He said in an interview with Bradford Morrow, “[The Tunnel] also elaborates the structure of the story in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. [The novel’s] in sections roughly seventy pages long, instead of paragraphs. These are musically organized. There are sections within sections: It’s sectioned up like an insect or a worm.” I believe there is much more to learn about the story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by reading it alongside Stein’s techniques in Tender Buttons; therefore, by extension, Stein’s enigmatic experimental poem may also whisper some clues in our ears, sibyl-like, to help us better comprehend the many levels of The Tunnel.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G. “Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 149-170.

Gass, William H. “Fifty Literary Pillars.” A Temple of Texts, Dalkey Archive, 2007, pp. 29-60.

—. “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence.” The World within the Word. Basic Books, 1978, pp. 63-123.

—. “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.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences, Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

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

Morrow, Bradford. “An Interview: William H. Gass.” Conjunctions, no. 4, 1983, pp. 14-29. Available online http://www.conjunctions.com/print/article/william-h-gass-c4.

Olson, Liesl M. Foreword. Narration by Gertrude Stein, The U of Chicago P, 2010, pp. vii-xii.

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.

Stein, Gertrude. Narration. The U of Chicago P, 2010.

—. Tender Buttons. Edited by Leonard Diepeveen, Broadview, 2018.

 

Interview with Grant Tracey: A Fourth Face

Posted in July 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 11, 2018

As a publisher, one of your hopes when working with an author is to facilitate their creative productivity — to not only bring out their completed work but to also establish a relationship that nurtures their imagination and their ambition. When I met Grant Tracey in 2015, over coffee in his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, he confided some frustration. He hadn’t published a book since 2009, a collection of short fiction, and he had plenty of material for a new book, but he’d come home from the most recent AWP Conference feeling overwhelmed and downtrodden. Various sessions he’d attended had implored authors to be cyber-beings, with websites and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and in general to embrace all sorts of newfangled media.

 

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Grant, however, wasn’t interested in any of that. He was a storyteller, and he wanted to focus on his craft, not get bogged down in the world of the Net. I only knew Grant by reputation, as the longstanding fiction editor of the venerable North American Review, the longest continuously published literary journal in the country (in fact, my wife and I were in town for the magazine’s bicentennial celebration conference). I definitely wanted Grant and his work to be part of Twelve Winters Press, regardless of whether or not he had any interest in being a cyber warrior. Certainly, a vigorous Web presence can only help sales, but what matters to me most is the quality of the writing — and the quality of Grant’s writing wasn’t in question at all.

I went away from that conversation with a handshake agreement to bring out a new collection of stories (which evolved into Final Stanzas, released later that year in paperback and e-book, then, a bit later, as a unique audiobook). In the process of working on the project with Grant, I discovered he’d also written a detective novel (his first full-length novel). My curiosity piqued, I asked to see the manuscript, wherein I was introduced to Hayden Fuller, an ex-pro hockey player turned private eye, navigating the mean streets of 1960s Toronto (Grant’s true hometown).

It turned out that detective noir was Grant’s first love as a writer. We published Cheap Amusements, the debut Hayden Fuller Mystery, in 2016, and in the process unleashed a torrent of inspired prose from Grant, complex stories he’d been percolating for years apparently. Twelve Winters has just released the second Hayden Fuller Mystery, A Fourth Face (in hardcover, paperback and Kindle), and Grant has already delivered the third installment of the series, which we plan to bring out next year, while Grant is researching and writing the already outlined fourth book.

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I coaxed Grant into slowing down the composing process long enough to answer a few questions about this newest release, and what follows are his thought-provoking and entertaining responses. (See also my interviews with Grant about Cheap Amusements and Final Stanzas; in addition, we published Grant’s memoir regarding the impetus of Hayden Fuller in an e-book, Toronto, 1965: Cheap Amusements’ Beat.)

Hayden Fuller is back in A Fourth Face. Trying to avoid any spoilers, what’s your protagonist up to in this new novel?

A former teammate, Bobby Ehle, is suspected of murdering his wife and asks Hayden for his help. Bobby has a history of domestic violence, but Hayden believes in the possibility of his innocence and takes the case. From there the trail takes him into a world of dangerous and experimental psychedelic drugs (the mind altering Red 45), quack doctors with their phony cosmetics and plastic surgeries, and a terrorist organization, N’oublie jamais, bent on destroying Expo 67. Hayden also goes on an inner journey, confronting for the first time, the traumas of his own past. The pace is quick, and the violence accelerates.

The title of the novel is a call back to Cheap Amusements and that novel’s exploration of the “third face,” an idea, first expressed by writer/director Samuel Fuller. He believed that we all have private and public faces, but also a third face, ones that we don’t even know we have until faced with trauma or extreme stress, like Fuller experienced on the battle lines in World War II. The third face is the repressed primordial impulse that we all carry. In A Fourth Face, reporter Stana Younger suggests that it, the fourth side of our complex selves, represses what the third side did, denying its culpability and reality. So if, Bobby, in third-face mode, did murder his wife, the fourth face denies what the third did, saying that the third face is not a part of the “real” Bobby Ehle.

Oh, a couple of footnotes. One: this novel, in part, was inspired by the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, where Terry Lennox asks Philip Marlowe to help him out of a possible “domestic jam.” Marlowe, in the Robert Altman film version, comes to discover that Lennox did kill his wife. Two: the Red 45 subplot is something Mickey Spillane might have concocted for a Mike Hammer thriller. No doubt, Spillane’s later Mike Hammer offering, Survival Zero, was an influence on A Fourth Face. Chandler and Spillane are among my favorite writers of crime noir.

I’m sure in the writing of this new Hayden Fuller Mystery you got to know Hayden even better. What did you learn about him? Was there anything especially surprising that you didn’t know before about your protagonist?

Two things. One, there’s a big reveal in the novel that I don’t want to give away, but that plot turn totally surprised me. Hayden came to me in a dream and told me about what had happened in his past, so I just had to work that into the book. It becomes a big part of the inner journey in Neon Kiss, and I think Hayden’s trauma helps explain the violence of the first book’s ending or “execution.” I didn’t feel that I needed to explain Hayden’s actions in Cheap Amusements, but this novel helps contextualize the debut novel’s final moments.

Second, I had no idea what was going to happen to Hayden’s relationship with Stana Younger (which seemed to be over at the end of Cheap Amusements), but relationships are complicated so I allowed the two characters to surprise me with where they were at, and where they were headed as friends, and as possible rekindled lovers. People, emotions, are complicated and I allowed for that messiness, muddy quality, to grab hold of me.

There’s a sensitivity, vulnerability to Hayden that is a part of me, and I guess as I keep writing him, taking risks, I’m surprised at how much I’m willing to explore and reveal of who he is, and in turn, who I am.

It seems like you’re really in the groove now writing about Hayden. You wrote A Fourth Face pretty quickly, and you’ve already completed a draft of the third Hayden Mystery, with plans for a fourth developing. My sense, then, is that you feel really comfortable with Hayden and the world you’ve created for him. How would you describe your comfort level with the characters and their world, and would you agree that the writing of the novels is coming along fairly easily at this point?

When you first suggested to me that with Cheap Amusements we had a series here and not just a one-off, I have to admit I was both extremely elated but also scared. Did I have it in me to continue to write not just this character but plots full of surprising twists, turns, and deceptions? But once I started writing the second novel (which I drafted in just under 40 days, writing every day) things just flowed and the fear went away. Hayden’s voice was overwhelming, there from the beginning, grabbing a hold of me. It’s me, but not me. Hayden’s a smart-ass, sensitive, and like Holden Caulfield, has little patience with phonies. The voice is a good fit with my sensibilities.

My writing style, for this series, is full of allusions. For example, Top Cop Sal Lambertino now wears suits instead of policeman blues, and Hayden describes his outfit as “Sloan Wilson grays,” a reference to a great novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. That’s part of Hayden’s voice, as is the short-jabs of sentences, the quirky one-liners, and the eyes tuned to psychological subtexts.

Stana Younger is also evolving into a character I really like. She’s tough, pragmatic, and fighting to make her way in the male-dominated field of reporting. After the first novel, she may have struck some readers as a femme-fatale, but such labels are too limiting. She’s a complex person who has made some bad decisions in the past, but she’s decent, caring, and committed to empowering the underdogs and outliers. She is also a great resource, with her police connections and fact-finding skills, providing Hayden with much needed information on each case. Sal is the no-nonsense, best friend, the state-sanctioned authority figure, a top cop. And the nattily-attired gangster Babe Migano also helps out Hayden, when it serves his interests. He is an underworld figure who straddles the line between genuine charm and menace. Migano is a cross between 1960s Rod Steiger and Jackie Gleason. If you can imagine that.

Do you feel Hayden is evolving organically, or are you having to coax his character along from time to time?

I never have to coax him. He always surprises me. I’m an impulse writer, comfortable with uncertainty, never knowing what will turn up next. But I trust in the process, my instincts, choices the characters make, that the journey we take will be a meaningful one. I begin with a plot outline and of course the big so what: who killed whom and why, but once the writing begins subplots emerge, side characters elbow their way on stage, and the novel takes me on a series of detours and highways I hadn’t expected to travel. The original plot outline changes dramatically.

I do know that I want each book to have a “hey wow” finish (like Dr. No’s island blowing up at the end of a Bond film), but I don’t pre-plan the shock ending. Somewhere on the journey, maybe three-fourths through, I see it and write toward it. Spillane, by contrast, often began his novels with the shock ending and then worked his way to find how to get there.

The goal is to entertain readers with a thriller, a good whodunit, but also to give them a lead character who is real and not just solving a crime but discovering in the process of detection who he is. The inner and outer stories.

On the one hand, you know a lot about Hayden and his world from your own experiences and interests—hockey, Toronto, the 1960s, etc.—but I’m sure some research or fact-checking is needed from time to time. Can you talk about how much research has gone into the writing of the books so far?

Crime books. As I mentioned before, I read the old masters: McBain, Chandler, Spillane, Thompson. I also admire John D. Macdonald, Richard Stark, Benjamin Black, and Max Allan Collins. Together they help inform, not so much an aesthetic, but a back drop of possibilities, contexts for my own writing in terms of plotting choices.

Movies. My fashion sense grows out of 60s fare: Honey West, The Green Hornet, Route 66, and Naked City. And any film with Paul Newman. Coolest cat ever.

Hockey books about the original six era. For A Fourth Face I read and re-read Roch Carrier’s Our Life with the Rocket; Benoît Malançon’s The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard; and Jean Béliveau’s My Life in Hockey to contextualize 1955’s “The Richard Riot,” which is an important backstory to the N’oublie jamais movement in the novel. I also read Pierre Berton’s 1967 to get a greater appreciation for that year’s Expo in Montreal.

When Cheap Amusements came out in 2016 you were able to give several readings, some in your own backyard and others in Chicago and elsewhere. How did those readings go? How did people respond to Hayden Fuller and the book?

The readings are a lot of fun. I get into it, becoming all the characters, inhabiting their spaces, and I want to give the audience the best performance I have in me that night. I want them to enjoy the energy with which I write.

Fans of mysteries are pretty knowledgeable so when they ask me about influences on my work and I mention writers I admire they know who I’m talking about and they can make those connections. I think one of the things audiences respond to in my books is the comic touches to Hayden’s voice. They like his smart-ass asides, his use of cultural allusions, and his brand of not-so-subtle understatement.

People also like the plotting. They say it’s complex (in a good way) and full of surprising turns.

Moreover, audiences seem to like that Hayden is a former hockey player (at least when I read in hockey towns like Minnesota and Chicago that was the case). That wrinkle gives the book a different flavor. In the 1950s and 60s, William Campbell Gault wrote a series of detective novels featuring Brock (“the Rock”) Callahan, a former lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, who is now a private eye in the City of Angels. My series, in part, is inspired by his earlier series.

In addition to being a writer, editor, teacher (among other things), you’re also an experienced stage actor. How does your acting inform your presentations of Hayden, etc., when you give readings?

The keys to acting are empathy and authenticity. Placing yourself in the spaces inhabited by others and fully understanding, appreciating, without judging, where each character is coming from. Acting is also about keeping it simple and true. Direct, honest. That’s what I try to do in my writing, and that’s what I try to do when I read, inhabit every space. Ron Carlson, in his great book, Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story, says that direct dialogue is a place of genuine freedom; those are the spaces where characters exist outside the modulated voice of the writer. As a writer, when you engage in dialogue, you have to take on each character’s agendas: what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Or maybe, I should say, you have to allow the characters to take you on surprising journeys. When they speak let them lead. Don’t fit them into a pre-defined agenda. Listen to what they have to tell you. And from there the plot will shift.

I’m also a big fan of the actorly beats. Those are the moment-to-moment choices an actor makes, following the impulses of the dialogue and what’s happening in the scene with his acting partner and within the play’s given circumstances. I’m always aware of beats when I read and let them spin me with surprises.

I also use a lot of beats in my writing. Not just in terms of shifts in dialogue, but I like, as did Ernest Hemingway, using brief descriptors, to create pauses, and thus increase the tension and psychological subtext of each moment. For example, two characters are talking and character A notices character B is chewing on her shirt collar. This is a beat. A pause. And it implies something within the given circumstances of the moment.

Tell us about the Gas Station Pulp Mystery series which you’ve started editing since the last time we talked (about Cheap Amusements).

It’s an imprint series of the North American Review Press that publishes a once-a-year crime novel. I love pulp fiction and the series blends that genre with the inner-directed drive of literary fiction. So I’m seeking character-driven pulp stories, loaded with action but also psychological nuance. Our first book in the series, Black Fin by Mary Frisbee, will be forthcoming soon. I’m currently reading material for our second Gas Station Pulp book.

Neon Kiss is the third Hayden Fuller Mystery (which the Press is planning to get out in 2019). What was your inspiration for the third book?

In the early 1980s I was visiting San Francisco and someone approached me on Geary Street and asked a bunch of questions, trying to figure out my faith (at the time I was an agnostic existentialist). Anyway, I made some disparaging comments about fundamentalists and how I couldn’t get behind their concept of a conditional God: receive my love if you do these things. My idea then was, if there is a God, he loves and accepts all. The fella really dug that comment and said something about how my idea of love fit right in with his church, and the notion of surrendering ourselves over to the way, giving up worldly things, and he invited me to attend a service that afternoon.

I thought about it. The fella had charisma. But, ultimately, I didn’t go. I was a bit freaked out to be honest with you. But I often wondered what would have happened to me if I did go? Would I have wound up in a commune somewhere? I know, I know. I’m sounding a little paranoid here, but a writer has to run with those imagined probabilities. That episode on Geary Street, in part, became the inspiration for the story.

Moreover, I wanted to tell a story about control. How people with dominant personalities and charismatic charm can control those who are less outgoing. At the heart of the novel is an abusive story: one sibling controlled by a megalomaniacal older sibling, who wants to “dismantle the universe,” and thus create his own reality. Twisted relationships of power I find endlessly interesting.

I’m sure at some level Dashiell’s Hammett’s The Dain Curse had a hand in my writing of Neon Kiss as does my fascination/repulsion with cults. John Buell’s The Pyx, in terms of subject matter and structure, was also an inspiration.

When I first drafted the novel, the young runaway woman, at the center of the story, was white. She falls into the cult and becomes the key to Hayden solving the double mystery (what happened to his father and who is behind the cult’s nefarious goings on). However, after visiting and being transformed by my experiences at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in July 2017, I decided to make the young woman Métis. I was really struck with the injustices First Nations Peoples faced at the hands of the Canadian Government.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, if a native mom raised a child alone, there could possibly be a knock at her door and that child would be taken out of the biological mother’s home and raised by a white couple. This was so shocking to me (and don’t get me started on residential schools and natives being force to learn white laws and ways) that I was compelled to revise my novel and put a Métis presence at the center of it. Like I said, the visit to the museum was transformative. If you haven’t gone. Do so. I was inspired.

This theme of human rights injustice will be revisited in the fourth Fuller novel, Shot/Reverse-Shot.

And lastly, the novel is a continuation of what happens in A Fourth Face, and here Hayden further explores his troubled relationship with his father. That becomes the novel’s inner journey.

I know you have big plans for the fourth book—you’ve even landed a sabbatical to assist the writing of it. What can you tell us about that Hayden project?

It’s 1966. Hayden is back in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and he has just won the Stanley Cup. An independent film producer wants to make an indie film, sort of a sappy Canadian Disney thing, and uses several Habs players as extras, filming that year’s Stanley Cup final versus Detroit for footage in his film.

Danny Davis, a minor character in Cheap Amusements will be more prominently featured this time around. Stana Younger, now living with Hayden, and working for a Montreal newspaper will also be strongly featured.

However, back to the main plot line. The indie, hockey producer used to make graphic sexploitation films, stuff in the spirit of the Defilers, and although he’s trying to go all family friendly, his sexploitation chickens come home to roost, and after one of the stars of his film is murdered, a Habs player is blamed for the killing. Hayden, an extra on the film, tries to prove his pal’s innocence.

The journey takes him into a world of sexploitation film-making, First Nations People’s Land rights, and a badass motorcycle club, the Northern Arrows. The title, Shot/Reverse-Shot is double-voiced: a film term, but also indicative of bullets flying.

I’ll be living for four weeks in Montreal, spring 2019, to both write the novel and explore the city and spot locations for the novel’s main lines of action. It’ll be a big challenge for me. I know Toronto really well, but I’ve never been to Montreal before. It has been a long-time dream, going back to my days at Trent University and hearing friends from Montreal (Ivan LeCouvie and Dave Coons), regale me with stories about fountains, bistros, and St. Urbain’s Street. I’m really excited to soak up the culture. If ever so briefly.

But, alas, I’ll always be a Leafs fan.

It would appear Hayden Fuller is taking up just about all your creative writing energy. Is that true, or are you working on some other projects, too?

I’ve started to branch out. At first Hayden was taking up all my time. I was constantly reading other crime novels, detective series, to find inspiration for future Fuller novels.

It takes a lot of energy to write a novel, but the Fuller books have given me the courage to try writing longer works, one-offs, outside the Hayden series. I just finished drafting a stand-alone crime novel, Winsome, sort of modeled on Geoffrey Homes’s Build My Gallows High and William P. McGivern’s Odds Against Tomorrow in which a 36-year-old cab driver, living in Winsome, a small upstate New York town, is confronted with the demons of his past (a prior kidnapping case) and is thus blackmailed into returning to a life of crime (a bank heist). A former radio operator in Korea, Eddie Sands is a good person who has made bad choices. He also suffers from PTSD.

The story is set in 1966, seven years after a 1959 failed kidnapping case in which Eddie’s wife, Karen, double-crossed Eddie and his pal Sy, and led the police to the boy’s location. The child didn’t press charges because Eddie and Karen treated him so well. He claimed only Sy was involved in the kidnapping. Sy, who didn’t treat the kid so well, was captured, and in true gangland code, didn’t rat the other two out. Eddie and Karen have taken on new last names and now live in relative anonymity. She’s a waitress. Together they share a home in a trailer park.

I had my good friend Mitchell D. Strauss read it (he also shoots my author photos for the Hayden Fuller series), and he gave me some really great revision strategies that I’m going to adopt over the next four months. Hopefully by Thanksgiving, I’ll have the new, improved Winsome ready to shop around.

Recently, I’ve also tried my hand at writing short crime stories. “Sun on Prospect Street, 1938” is a 1900-word hit men story inspired by an Edward Hopper painting hanging at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The painting made me think of two people sitting in a car, looking at an empty street, preparing to do what they have to do. It’s a humdinger!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m just grateful for the opportunity to write what has always been a passion of mine: detective stories. I began writing my first stories in high school, featuring Rick Dragon, Cleveland’s toughest private eye (I’d never been to Cleveland, but the rust-belt town appealed to my love of grime and the smell of dust and dirt). Story titles such as “Accidents Will Happen” (I was a huge Elvis Costello fan back then) and “It All Makes a Lot of Sense” tells you all you need to know. In my MA workshops, I wrote literary fiction and detective stories (as a matter of fact, mobster Babe Migano first appears in a story I wrote way back in the fall of 1984. I think it was called “Find the Girl.”).

However, in workshops, I was often made to feel that detective fiction was less than, that I should be aspiring to write a story worthy of inclusion in an O. Henry Award anthology. My work was taken to be highly stylized and labeled “parody.” What, really? Parody. Come on, now. Raymond Chandler’s not a parodic writer. Neither am I.

We’re both stylized writers, but not parodic. Chandler sought to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime fiction. There are a lot of links between Farewell My Lovely and the Great Gatsby: the yearning for an irretrievable past; a man searching for his lost love; the doomed romanticism of the narrative voice. Anyway, in such a workshop environment, I shoveled my love of crime detection under smoldering leaves, but it was always there, hiding around the edges of my literary stories.

In 2008 the landscape shifted and genre hybridization became more and more apparent in the world of literary publishing, as stories borrowed from speculative camps and you saw a host of literary hyphenates. I’m not a postmodernist writer. I’m a high modernist; however, not to give away any spoilers, I do, at the end of A Fourth Face, deconstruct, or at least, gray up the binaries, of the classic Mickey Spillane ending: Mike Hammer rescuing a badly beaten and tied-up Velda from a gang of communists or degenerates or communist degenerates if you like.

Anyway, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m really writing what I love and I thank you, Ted, and Twelve Winters for allowing me to pursue what got me into writing in the first place. As Sam Spade toasts in The Maltese Falcon: “Success. To crime!”


Grant Tracey is an English professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film and creative writing, and has been the fiction editor of the North American Review for over seventeen years. He has published nearly fifty short stories, four collections of fiction, and articles on Samuel Fuller and James Cagney. His collections are Final Stanzas, Lovers & Strangers, Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe, and Playing Mac: A Novella in Two Acts, and Other Scenes. In 2016 Grant published his debut crime novel, Cheap Amusements, the first Hayden Fuller Mystery. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Grant was the recipient of an Iowa Regents Award for Faculty Excellence in 2013. In addition to his writing, editing and teaching, Grant has acted in over thirty community theater productions. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jailbreak!: William Gass’s Lifelong Work to Free Himself from the Imprisonment of Print

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2018

This paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, University of Louisville, on February 23, 2018. Due to a last-minute change, I chaired the panel, Temporalities of Revision. Other panelists were Kelly Kiehl, University of Cincinnati; and Sarah-Jordan Stout, Rice University. The paper is dedicated to William H. Gass, who passed away December 6, 2017.

 


 

In the annals of American experimental fiction, William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife holds a place of reverence due, mainly, to its ambitious (some may say, excessive) experimentation: nineteen different typefaces (varying in point sizes, with unusual placements and movements on the pages), and copious graphic elements, including several photos of a nude model. The odd little novella first appeared in 1968 as TriQuarterly supplement No. 2 – in its most experimental format, which included a variety of paper stock in addition to its other eccentricities – then in a hardcover edition from Knopf (1971) and later a paperback edition from Dalkey Archive (1989). The Knopf and Dalkey editions maintained the original design, minus the use of various paper stock.

Willie Masters’ occupies a place of infamy in Postmodern circles: No one faults Gass’s ambitions. However, the odd little book hasn’t garnered much, well, affection over the years either, which I think is a crying shame. Even Gass himself wasn’t overly generous regarding the end result. In the Art of Fiction interview (1976) he stated,

I was trying out some things. Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says: “Oh yeah, I get the idea,” but that’s all there is to get, the idea. I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects. (Conversations 22)

He was, I think, a little too hard on himself. I am moved by the book; it affects me, but perhaps not quite as Gass would have hoped. And Gass may have changed his opinion of Willie Masters’ success over time. In the essay “Anywhere but Kansas” which first appeared in The Iowa Review in 1994 (nearly thirty years after writing Willie Masters’ and on the cusp of The Tunnel’s publication, which required a gestation of nearly that length of time and which makes use of many of the techniques in its infamous predecessor), Gass discusses the importance of experimentation: “An experiment, I would learn much later, . . . had to arise from a real dissatisfaction with existing knowledge. There was a gap to be filled, a fracture to be repaired, an opening to be made” (29). The public at large, he says, only admires experiments that work; however, for the experimenters themselves, an unsuccessful experiment may bring its own kind of success. “In the lab,” writes Gass, “a ‘no’ may not elicit cheers; it is nevertheless a bearer of important information” (30). He may, then, have learned some important narrative lessons from Willie Masters’, lessons he took to heart during the three decades he labored on The Tunnel, which shares some of Willie Masters’ techniques, but significantly toned down.

Gass imposingWhat is more, three decades later, Gass felt just as strongly about the need for writers to engage in experimentation for the sake of their art: “[I]t is . . .  repeatedly necessary for writers to shake the system by breaking its rules, ridiculing its lingo, and disdaining whatever is in intellectual fashion. To follow fashion is to play the pup” (Conversations 30). Gass may not have achieved the aesthetic affects he was aiming for in Willie Masters’ in 1968, but, in retrospect, he seemed to value his own efforts — though he doesn’t say so explicitly.

As wildly experimental as Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife turned out to be, it was tamer than Gass had in mind1. A visit to the Gass Papers at Washington University in St. Louis, where Gass taught philosophy from 1969 to 1999, can give us some sense of what the author had in mind from the start, working only with a manual typewriter, pen or pencil, straight edge, scissors and glue, plus other objects like fabric and newspaper clippings. In part what Gass was trying to achieve was bridging the gap between writer and reader by making the narrative come to life, so to speak, in the reader’s hands. That is, rather than simply describing things — that is, providing symbols for things — which evoke intellectual and (hopefully) emotional responses in the reader, Gass wanted the thing itself to become part of the reader’s world. In essence, the book itself becomes a performance piece in the reader’s world — akin perhaps to the playwright’s task in moving from script to performed play. One writes of a pistol on the page, which becomes a real pistol on the stage, one which discharges so that the audience members can actually hear its bang and actually smell its smoke.

Gass may encourage this comparison by including a play as one of the multiple narratives at work in Willie Masters’, whose overarching narrative is Babs Masters’ seduction of the reader into her lonely text. One of the best examples of Gass’s attempt to move from manuscript into the reader’s reality is via a set of coffee-cup rings that appear on several pages. A new section of the novella begins, “The muddy circle you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on the leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup” ([37]). But just as the theatrical pistol is only a prop, Gass immediately acknowledges that the dark-brown circle is not actually a ring from his cup: “Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realize, this book is many removes from anything I’ve set pen, hand, or cup to.” The author attempts to enter the reader’s reality more corporeally than authors typically do, but, ultimately, that gap can only be bridged so far.

Text with coffee ring 1

We can see that the coffee-ring idea was an early one in Gass’s conception of the book, and, in fact, was created no doubt by actual coffee.The circle returns later in the novella, but in a more metaphorical role according to the text it encircles: “This is the moon of daylight” ([52]). The circle multiplies to appear as five circles on the final two pages of the book, in two cases highlighting the inserted phrases “HERE BE DRAGONS” and “YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO ART — RETURN TO LIFE” ([58]). The final coffee-like ring appears on the facing page, which is a close-up of the female nude’s breasts and navel, with the ring encircling the latter.Others have noted that there are (at least) two female models used for the book: one whose image appears on the cover, and another whose images appear (possibly) eight times throughout the book. The final coffee ring appears on the torso of, it appears, the cover’s model. The interior version of Babs Masters is more, well, voluptuous than the cover and final coffee-ring Babs. Yet there is a striking difference between the cover and the final image:  The nude on the cover has no belly-button; it’s been airbrushed out. The final coffee-ring encircles and emphasizes the belly-button, however, maybe making us take note of its absence on the cover.

coffee rings - there be dragons

WM cover - no navel

navel - close up

Is it in fact, then, Babs represented on the cover of the book, or is it Eve? Gass would go on to use Eve as a metaphor with regularity in his fictions. Michael Hardin makes some provocative observations about Willie Masters’ in an article in Short Story, discussing both Gass’s novella and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979. Hardin notes, for example, that on the first page of the book Babs’s hand reaches toward the title just as the reader does in a rather hand-of-God sort of way:

The extended arm references Michelangelo’s Creation of Man, where God is extending his hand to spark life into Adam’s extended hand. The reader must decide whether Babs (the wife) is in the space of the creator or the created. . . . [G]iven the nature of the sexual politics of the text, one might argue that Babs is the creative spark passed between author (whose hand reaches out with the pen) and reader, God and Adam. (80-81)

hand of godPerhaps Hardin didn’t notice the MIA belly-button because he doesn’t bring Eve into the analysis even though it seems rife for her inclusion. By encircling Babs’s navel at the conclusion of the book (and returning to the cover model for the image), Gass signals that Eve/Babs is now only Babs, making the statement “You have fallen into art—return to life” especially provocative. It may be that our sojourn in the complicated text of Willie Masters’ – which Gass overtly parallels with our having sexual intercourse with Babs – is akin to the Fall, and when we reach the final page we are expelled from the textual Paradise, like hapless Adam and Eve; however, like Adam and Eve we have acquired a unique experience for which we are the richer, even if that richness is colored by sin. But since sin in this metaphor is art/sex, Gass implies sin ain’t such a bad thing, and, in fact, it (art, experiencing it, creating it) is the only thing that makes life worth living: An idea which Gass returned to again and again in his fiction, his essays, his criticism, and his interviews. In addition to being a voracious and eclectic reader, Gass said, in 1971, that he enjoyed “all” the arts, “especially perhaps ballet (when pure and not mucked up) and architecture. I was an opera nut when young. . . . I haunt museums when I can. In one sense, painting has influenced my theory of art more than almost anything, music my practice of it” (9). Gass’s interest in the visual is obviously reflected in his merging of text with pictorial elements. As a writer, he was about what all writers ought to be about, he said: “You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do” (26).

One of Gass’s ambitions in Willie Masters’ is to seduce the reader into reading the text carefully and thoughtfully – that is, deeply. Already in 1966, when he began work on the novella, Gass recognized that too many readers were impatiently speeding through texts, and (worse perhaps) too many writers were providing them material that enabled such shallow encounters. Gass said, “A lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (25). Whenever one begins unpacking a Gass metaphor, the act, by necessity, becomes reductive. Nevertheless, for illustration’s sake, I’ll work my way through Gass’s attempted seduction of the reader in Willie Masters’ via his use of metaphor, wordplay, and imagery. I will force myself as best I can to hold onto a single strand and resist the text’s Siren song which could lead us in myriad directions (not to our doom, however).

One of several storylines Gass juggles in Willie Masters’ is a playscript featuring Ivan and Olga wherein Ivan finds a penis baked into his breakfast roll. At this point in the novella the carnival ride hasn’t become too topsy-turvy for the reader, but it’s about to begin spinning (nearly) out of control. Gass starts interrupting the playscript with footnotes which engage the reader in academic-sounding notes related, it seems, to the main narrative. The first footnote is signaled by an asterisk, and the second by two asterisks (just as Gass is using asterisks to represent other things in the text besides footnotes, so are these footnotes after all? — Or is Gass toying with us?). The second alleged footnote references John Locke’s Concerning Human Understanding (ha!) and discusses how “ideas” are “take[n] in,” “masticate[d]” and “swallow[ed] down” ([15], my emphasis on down). The footnote-like interruptions continue on the following pages, except on page [17] the footnote itself is interrupted with yet another typeface, in bold, which says, “Now that I’ve got you alone down here [i.e., at the bottom of the page], you bastard, don’t think I’m letting you get away easily, no sir, not you brother; anyway, how do you think you’re going to get out, down here where it’s dark and oily like an alley . . . ?” Suddenly “down here” is not the bottom of the page, but rather it’s Babs talking to us about her dark and oily sex, which she says is as “meaningless as Plato’s cave.” We, the blissful readers, have been lured there, in between Babs’s waiting legs, and there’s no easy way out.

Footnote - close up

foot pageThe complexities mount, so to speak, for twenty or more pages before we come (ugh) to the section that introduces us to the “muddy circle” — whose dark shape, like the opening of Plato’s cave perhaps, has even more symbolic weight than mere coffee-cup ring. We also note that the section begins with Babs’s bare leg and foot knocking down the enlarged “T” in “The” with which the paragraph starts, thus echoing the earlier seductive “footnote” ([37]). Gass’s playing with the convention of the footnote, a standard feature of annotated texts, appears to contradict its function, at first, but upon further contemplation (and multiple readings) it does not contradict it. That is, normally a footnote aids in clarifying a reference, and thereby maybe an entire passage, but the footnotes in Willie Masters’ seem to only muddy the narrative waters, obscuring instead of clarifying. However, we later realize that the footnotes are aiding our understanding of the novella as a whole, contributing to the convention that Gass is attempting to seduce us into a complex relationship with his book. Intercourse with Babs Masters cannot be a mere one-night stand; she gets into your head and won’t let you go — à la Fatal Attraction. (Luckily I don’t have a pet rabbit.)

Earlier I said that I am affected by Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I must acknowledge that its characters do not engage me on an emotional level, but the book itself – Gass’s ambitions and his achievements –are inspirational to me as a creative writer. A black-and-white photo of the Master hangs on the wall next to my desk; a line drawing, too, on the wall of our master bedroom, next to the door where it will be viewed most frequently; I have acquired 51 books either by Gass or which include his writing (among them first editions, rare books, and several bearing his autograph), and this isn’t counting the books about Gass’s work. I have surrounded myself by the Master and his words, including this literary call-to-arms at the end of Willie Masters’: “It’s not the languid pissing prose we’ve got, we need; but poetry, the human muse, full up, erect and on charge, impetuous and hot and loud and wild like Messalina going to the stews, or those damn rockets streaming headstrong into the stars.”

Amen, Master. Rest in peace, and in the knowledge some of us will carry on the good fight.

Notes

1. See “‘The Text Is Oozing Out’: William H. Gass and Transliteracy” by Clarence Wolfshohl, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, 1989, pp. 497-503, in which Wolfshohl shares some of his personal correspondence with Gass regarding Willie Masters’ and its production.: “The stains and the nude photos are as close as Gass comes to bringing the outside physical world into the hook, but he wanted much more. He also thought of having cloth tip-ins and a condom bookmark, and, in his own words, ‘lots of other nutty things.'”

2. I’d like to thank Joel Minor and the other archivists in the Special Collections Department of Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis for their assistance in examining the manuscript drafts of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. Visit William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence.

3. The photography in Willie Masters’ was by Burton L. Rudman. Gass had hoped for an older model to portray Babs, according to Wolfshohl (see note 1). The images of Gass’s original manuscript pages are by the author.

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “Anywhere but Kansas.” Tests of Time, The U of Chicago P, 2002, pp. 28-36.

—. Conversations with William H. Gass. Edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003.

—. Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Dalkey Archive, 1998.

Hardin, Michael. “Desiring Fragmented Bodies and Texts: William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979.Short Story, vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp. 79-90.

 

 

Interview with Brady Harrison: The Dying Athabaskan

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 10, 2018

I’ve long been interested in the long story and novella; that is, literary work that falls in the gray-area length between a typical (nowadays) short story and a full-length novel — let’s say, about 5,000 words and 50,000 words. That’s an awfully large gap separating what most literary journals will consider and what most agents and commercial publishers will look at for book publication. Yet this is a fairly recent development in the publishing biz. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was commonplace for national magazines to publish longer pieces (often serially) which would then be picked up by a commercial publisher for book publication.

Think Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Joseph Conrad, resulting in works like A Christmas Carol, Cranford, The Cossacks, The Turn of the Screw, Ethan Frome, The Awakening, and Heart of Darkness, among many, many other great works that are powerful even though — or maybe because — they are not full-length novels.

My interest in the form led me to design a course on the long story and novella for Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program (online), which I’ll be teaching for the third time in summer quarter; and it led me to create the Publisher’s Long Story Prize via my literary press, Twelve Winters. The first calls went out in the summer of 2016, and the response was immediate. We appeared to strike a rich and largely untapped vein.  (See the Prizes’s page for further information.)

Dying Athabaskan - FRONT COVER 400From that initial round of submissions, we eventually culled our first winner: The Dying Athabaskan by Brady Harrison, a complex narrative about a freelance writer who embarks on discovering the inspiration for a famous sculpture, The Dying Athabaskan. We recently released our first Long Story Prize winner in paperback and digital editions, and author Brady Harrison generously agreed to be interviewed about his book, his writing process, and today’s literary landscape, especially as it pertains to these in-between-length works of fiction. Here are Brady’s unedited responses.

TM: Even though my main literary love interest is William Gass, by the transitive property of literary love I’m also a fan of James Joyce, and I seem to see a lot of Joycean influence in The Dying Athabaskan: experimenting with varying forms; alluding to other books and artwork, often within the context of working-class drinking establishments; playing with language in the service of lyricism; and even your treatment of dialogue is very Joycean, from a mechanical perspective especially. In particular I’m seeing a lot of Ulysses. Am I projecting that onto your text, or would you count Joyce among your influences?

brady harrison v2 - 150 dpiBH: Joyce: absolutely, and for all the reasons you indicate:  the restless mind, the interest in experimentation and blending different genres, the love of language and how it sounds, and the love of books, music, art. And, the love of bars, of course. In addition to Joyce, my favorite writers are the anatomists, those writers of big, all-over-the-place narratives that refuse to settle on one storytelling mode or style, but that keep experimenting, keep trying out new ideas and ways of expressing them. I’m thinking here of those great comic, yet serious writers like Melville, Sterne, Diderot, Flann O’Brien, Flaubert (in Bouvard and Pécuchet), Woolf, Stein, and Sebald, among many others.  Oh, and Gass, though I know you’re a bigger fan than I am.  For language, the same folks, and Faulkner, too.  A list of my literary heroes. (For the record, I’m also a big fan of Margaret Atwood, despite O’Keevan’s dig.)

In a relatively brief narrative you offer a variety of perspectives and forms. Is this typical of your style, or is The Dying Athabaskan a departure in some ways?

Left to my own devices, this would be my style, but over the years I’ve found it’s easier to place stories that don’t change gears so often, that don’t mix forms, but rather that rely on a consistent point of view and more straight-forward narrative strategies. And, I’m mostly ok with that: the straight-forward story imposes a kind of discipline that I need, and reminds me that I’m not just writing for myself. I remember something that was going around on the web: “Shakespeare wrote for money.” Whenever I find myself wanting to experiment, to turn a story into a play or a letter or a tale from the Arabian nights, and then turn it back and then into something else again, I usually have to reel myself back in. In the case of The Dying Athabaskan, however, I think it works because Ritu, in the process of trying to understand whether or not a thing can mean, tries out any number of forms and approaches. She’s also trying to find out about herself, about her own powers and mind.

Mainstream publishers — even mainstream literary publishers — aren’t inclined to embrace narrative experimentation. Yet you wrote a long, experimental story, perhaps doubling the difficulty of finding a publisher. Can you speak to your interest in experimentation?

After working on stories for a few years, I wanted to try something longer, and wrote a novel about a real-life French poet-explorer set in North Africa in 1930, and I wrote it in the form of an explorer’s journal. It began realistically — what would it be like to travel in the Western Sahara, about the only place in the world that’s not a country, while trying to avoid capture by Berbers and Moors? — but soon enough the journal begins to mutate into other narrative forms and the narrator begins to meet other writer-adventurers who died before he was born, or were born after he died, and at least one of his guides keeps changing shapes and sizes. The narrator, disguised as a woman, begins to turn into a woman. Of course, I thought it was great, comic yet serious, and a number of publishers asked to review the ms.: no takers, and one perhaps made plain what the others were thinking: how could we possibly market so strange a novel about a gender-shifting Frenchman to American readers? Oh, and some sections were written in French, and much of the plot turned around a letter written and mailed to the un-hero before he was born. All to say, I learned my lesson: experimentation and a sort of wildness, at least as I managed them, seem not to be suited to the contemporary marketplace.  Or, maybe it wasn’t any good.

The Dying Athabaskan is the title story of a collection you’re shopping. How would you describe the other stories and their relationship to Athabaskan?

For a long time, the working title of the collection was “Sever,” and most of the stories turn around key moments when the protagonist breaks or severs ties with others or with themselves, usually through an act of emotional or physical violence. In The Dying Athabaskan, Brion wants desperately to sever himself from Sister, Briony breaks rather violently with Neil, and O’Keevan seems to want to push almost everyone away.  In another story, a no-longer-young man has finally resolved, at his mother’s urging, to leave his parents’ failing farm; in a third, a successful engineer abandons his family while on vacation. In a one page story, two friends follow through on a long-ago promise to murder, if a certain thing ever happens, a third buddy. And, then, having severed ties, how does a person go about reconnecting, reconciling, making peace?  Some of the stories are about trying to repair the damage done, or about trying to make meaningful connections where they seem unlikely. In one way or another, they all turn around that very human problem of loss and what to do about it. But I should add:  they’re not all as grim as I might be making them sound; some of them, I hope, are funny, and I’ll call the one about the brothers-by-choice killing their buddy a black comedy.

One of your pub credits is the journal The Long Story — a journal I’ve admired for years, decades perhaps (its editor has rejected my work several times) — which suggests that Athabaskan isn’t your first piece of long narrative fiction. Is the long story/novella a length/form you find yourself especially drawn to? And if so, why? (William Gass felt that the novella was his natural medium, and he was at his best writing in that in-between length, or perhaps his most comfortable.)

If I love the long, baggy, all-over-the-place anatomies (except Pynchon: can’t stand his work, save for The Crying of Lot 49, and have no idea why he’s so celebrated), I also love, equally, the novella, and routinely teach courses on the genre. My lure to students: “If, as Randall Jarrett famously remarked, a ‘novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,’ and if, as some readers protest, short stories simply cannot offer the richness and complexities of longer works, then what could be more perfect than the novella, that rare, gem-like form somewhere-in-between?” Really good novellas seem to achieve a degree of perfection — I’m not making that claim for myself! — that novels cannot, and seem to offer a richer tapestry than can usually be achieved in stories.

And, some writers, I think, achieve their best work in the form:  I think, for example, that Joyce Carol Oates does some of her best work in the novella, and she’s one of the few contemporary writers who works consistently in the genre. Same thing for Stephen King: while I find his novels way too long, he seems best when he self-edits yet gives plenty of character and just enough plot in works like “Stand by Me” or “The Mist.” The truly sublime novellas: there are many of course, but I would say, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, and any short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. In the latter case, every time I read one of her short works, I wonder, How does she do it? Oh, and many of Georges Simenon’s roman durs, outstanding.

Ok, to sort of get back to your question!  I was really lucky (and really honored) to place a story in The Long Story, a journal that, like you, I’ve admired forever. “The Guest” is a really tough thing to read:  it’s about a driver hitting a homeless person, who then sails through the front windshield, and the driver, rather than calling the police and ambulance, drives home and parks in the garage. When I first wrote the story, it was about twice as long: I wanted to honor the tradition in the novella of a frame narrative, and I told, alongside the story of the accident and its aftermath, the story of the narrator, an investigative journalist, and how and why he was dying.  Suffering a traumatic injury of his own, this will be his last work as a reporter. In the end, I cut the frame, and while the story certainly gained in intensity and focus, it also perhaps lost something, too.  All to say, I hope to keep working on the long story: call it the best of both worlds, novel and short fiction.

Long stories are so difficult to place these days, did you think about that as you were writing it? Did you consider restraining the narrative to try to keep it within a more publishable length? How difficult was it to find a publisher for Athabaskan?

I’ll be blunt: I’m damn lucky you created the Publisher’s Long Story Prize! Like most folks, I’d like to see my work into print, but at the same time I’m just perverse enough to also want to write what I want to write and the market be damned.  But you’re right:  I was taking a chance in writing that weird in-between length. At the same time, the long story or novella has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. I’m thinking of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series (though of course they mostly republish the “classics”) and a few literary journals have novella contests every other year or so.  There seems to be a modest market for the form, and it’s not unusual for collections by big guns like David Gates or George Saunders to include a long story.  And, as I say, Joyce Carol Oates (who’s a force of nature) routinely does her part to keep the form alive and well.

As you know, the Press publishes Grant Tracey’s Hayden Fuller Mystery Series, and Hayden is Grant’s alter ego ex-NHL star turned detective, gumshoeing his way through the mean streets of 1960s Toronto, where Grant grew up. Hockey is a major element in Athabaskan as well. Can you talk about hockey’s influence on your creative psyche growing up in Canada?

Grant 5Grant! The G-man! I love Cheap Amusements (and Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe) in no small part because of the hockey connections. And, I remember vividly the hard-boiled short films Grant made while we were in grad school:  in the Fuller mysteries, we get two of Grant’s passions, two-fisted action on and off the ice.  More on Grant in a moment.

Hockey? I guess you could say I’m about as Canadian as they come. I still play hockey two nights a week, skate in as many pond hockey tournaments as I can, and will often hang around after our games to watch other buddies play; I still count the Montreal Canadiens as my favorite team (the arch enemies of Grant’s beloved Toronto Maple Leafs) and try to catch their games on TV. I love everything about hockey: the speed, the way skates work on ice, the team play, the sheer thrill of scoring a goal. I also love weird things about the sport: I love the sounds of the game, and I’m fascinated by the way players talk to one another in mid-play. I’m a true rink-rat, for sure, always have been.

Ok, that’s a long preamble to a question that I probably can’t answer: hockey’s always been a big part of my life, but The Dying Athabaskan is my first story to include the game. Winter: that has shaped my imagination in every way possible, and hockey is a part of my winter mind: I find in so many of my stories that the cold creeps into the action, that snow and ice and how it feels to be out in winter creeps into the characters and how they move and perhaps even think. There’s a certain caution that comes with winter, but also a genuine exhilaration. I’m rambling: I know and love winter, I can say that much.

After selecting The Dying Athabaskan for the Publisher’s Long Story Prize, we learned that you and Grant have more in common than both being from Canada and writing about hockey. You actually went to grad school together. Can you dish a favorite grad school story on Grant?

Ok, this is the question I’ve been waiting for!  Grant was such a big part of my life in those days, and we’ve remained friends over the years. Back in the day, Grant had a punk rock show on the local public radio station, and he was kind enough to invite me, on several occasions, to sit in and have some time on the mic talking about the music and the history and evolution of punk. I remember the hot, cramped little booth at WEFT, and most of all I remember Grant’s passion and encyclopedic knowledge. What a blast it was: the Clash, Patti Smith, the Ramones, MC5, Iggy, X-Ray Spex, the Pistols, real old school turned up to 11. Grant was such a great host, and the show was on late, and who knows who was out there, listening, but we had such a brilliant time. (G-man:  if you’re reading this, hit me with your ultimate Spirit of ’77 playlist: now that the smoke has cleared, what’s the one, perfect show’s worth of songs?!)

One other story: one day, we hopped in his explode-able Pinto and drove from Champaign-Urbana to Washington, D.C., to see, at the Library of Congress, an alternative ending to Kiss Me Deadly a noir starring Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. We were just kids, and we had the time of our lives: Grant was doing research on hard-boiled films, and I had never seen the capital, and we talked music and movies and books for hours and hours. Did the alternative ending actually exist? That’s a secret.

You’re also attracted to the poetry and essay forms. Is one your strength, would you say? What are some of your current projects?

I enjoy trying out all forms, but I’m really committed to two: one of my heroes is that great wildman of American letters, Leslie Fiedler (who wrote many of his masterpieces while at the University of Montana), and when asked if he preferred writing articles or stories, he remarked that he saw no difference between writing stories and writing about stories.  I’ve taken that as my cue (as perhaps you have!), and these days I seem to divide my time about equally between fiction and scholarly research and writing. In terms of “creative writing” — truth be told, I can never understand why scholarly writing is not considered “creative” when, to my mind, it’s absolutely as creative as writing, say, stories, poems, or personal essays — I’m interested in narrative. So, I hope to find a good home for the collection of stories I’ve put together, and if that works out, I have a couple of ideas for novels. We’ll see. In my day job, I’m currently writing a book about, of all things, quantum physics and literary interpretation. I’m really enjoying the research—quantum physics is just so damn strange, even comic, at least to me—and hope to finish the book in the next year or so. I’m also co-editing a collection of essays on teaching Western American literature in colleges and universities. I can say this: I’ve been lucky: I’ve had the opportunity to work on things that interest me.


Brady Harrison’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Cerise Press, J Journal, The Long Story, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Serving House Journal, and Wascana Review, among literary journals others.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and recent poetry appears in the anthology, Poems Across the Big Sky II.  He is also edited two books on Montana literature, These Living Songs:  Reading Montana Poetry and All Our Stories Are Here:  Critical Approaches to Montana Literature.  His most recent book is Punk Rock Warlord:  The Life and Music of Joe Strummer.  He lives in Missoula, Montana, and teaches at the University of Montana. (Photo credits: Brady Harrison / David Baumstark; Grant Tracey / Mitchell D. Strauss)

The myth of ‘best practices’ in education

Posted in August 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 20, 2017

Last Wednesday I began my thirty-fourth year as a schoolteacher. To be sure, teaching has changed in those years, kids have, too — although neither as much as one might think. There is one thing, however, that has been amazingly consistent: the number of people who, year upon year, insist that I and my peers adopt a method which they bill as a “best practice” — some technique that they know will improve my teaching because, well, how could it not? It’s a best practice.

Not once — in all those innumerable workshops, inservices and presentations — has a purveyor of a best practice offered a shred of evidence that what they’re promoting will actually lead to better (let alone, the best) teaching. It’s always offered under the implied guise of common sense. It’s the epitome of the logical fallacy of begging the question: Dear Teacher, accept the fact that what you’ve been doing (whatever it may be) hasn’t been as effective as what I’m about to tell you to do. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

And teaching is, allegedly, an evidence-based profession. Schools claim that what they’re doing is “evidence-based,” but oftentimes, if there is something like evidence out there, it’s contrary to what’s being prescribed. On the one hand, I don’t really blame folks for not presenting the evidence to support their claims of the effectiveness of the practice they’re advocating, because (as I’ve written about before) testing in education is fraught with problems. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to generate data which can be reliably analyzed. In any given testing situation, there are simply too many variables to control, and many of them are literally beyond the control of educators. Students are not rats confined to the tiny world of a lab where researchers can effect whatever conditions they’re studying. Imagine scientists sending their rats home each night and asking them to return the next morning for continued research; and periodically the group of rats they’ve been studying are replaced by a whole new group of rats whose histories are a total mystery. (Apologies for comparing students to rats — for what it’s worth, I like rats … and students.)

All right, so I don’t blame purveyors of best practices for not presenting their (nonexistent) evidence; however, I do blame them for suggesting, implicitly, that evidence does exist. It must, right? Otherwise how could they say some technique, some approach is “best” (or at least “better”)?

The reality is, best practices are a myth. Forget good, better, best; let’s turn, instead, to effective versus ineffective (and even that paradigm is nebulous). Effectiveness must be considered on a case by case basis. That is, we want all students to benefit as a result of our efforts, but what works for Bobby versus what works for Suzie on any given day at any given moment, for any given skill or knowledge acquisition, may constitute completely opposite approaches; and tomorrow the reverse may be true. And quite honestly, whether an approach is effective or ineffective may be unknowable, in the moment and even in the long term. The learning takes place in the student’s mind, and the mind is a murky, complicated place. Hopefully the skill or knowledge is identifiable and assessible (via a quiz or test or paper or project), but it may not be, especially in the humanities, which are more concerned with creative and critical applications than in the sciences or the vocational area, where right-or-wrong, black-or-white distinctions are the rule rather than the exception.

Generally the purveyor of a best practice is able to communicate the technique in a few bullet points on a handout or a PowerPoint, but the differences — the vast differences — between grade levels, subject matters, demographics of students, backgrounds and knowledge-levels of teachers, etc., etc., etc. make such simplistic declarations ridiculous. Imagine going to an agricultural convention and telling an assembled group of farmers that you have for them a best practice, and here it is in six bullet points. You’re welcome. No matter what they’re growing, where they’re growing it, what sorts of equipment they have at their disposal, what the climate models are suggesting, how the markets are trending — This is it, brother: Just follow these six steps and your yields will be out of this world. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

The farmers would be nonplussed to put it mildly. Plug in professionals from any other arena — business owners, attorneys, medical doctors, engineers — and the ridiculousness of it (that a single set of practices will improve what they’re doing, regardless of individual situations) becomes clear. It’s so clear, in fact, I can’t imagine any presenter doing it — telling a room full of surgeons, for instance, to do this one simple procedure all the time, no matter the patient’s history, no matter their lab work, no matter how they’re responding on the table — and yet it happens to educators all the time.

Almost without fail, techniques that are presented as best practices are observable. It’s about what you say to students or what they say to you; what you write on the chalkboard; what you write in lesson plans or curricular outlines. It simplifies the process of evaluating teachers’ performances if the evaluator can look for a few concrete actions from every teacher, from kindergarten teacher to calculus teacher, from welding teacher to reading teacher; from the teacher of gifted students to the teacher of exceptional students. It makes assessment so much simpler if everyone is singing from the same hymnal.

I deliberately used the word performances in the previous paragraph because so often that’s what evaluation boils down to: a performance for the audience-of-one, the evaluator. We often hear the term “high-stakes testing” in the media (that is, standardized tests whose results have significant consequences for test-takers and their schools), but we have also entered into a time of “high-stakes evaluating” for teachers, performance assessments which impact their literal job security. Teachers quickly learn that if their evaluator claims x, y and z are best practices, they’d better demonstrate x, y and z when they’re being observed — but quite possibly only when they’re being observed because in truth they don’t believe in the validity or the practicality of x, y and z as a rule.

In such cases, teachers are not trying to be insubordinate, or mocking, or rebellious; they’re trying to teach their charges in the most effective ways they know how (based on the training of their individual disciplines and their years of experience in the classroom), and they disagree with the practices which are being thrust upon them. Teachers do no take an oath equivalent to doctors’ Hippocratic oath, but conscientious teachers have, in essence, taken a personal and professional vow to do no harm to their students; thus they find themselves in a conundrum when their judgments about what’s effective and what isn’t are in conflict with the best practices by which they’re being evaluated. For teachers who care about how well they’re teaching — and that’s just about every teacher I’ve had the privilege to know in the last thirty-four years — it’s a source of stress and anxiety and even depression. More and more teachers every year find that the only way to alleviate that stress in their lives is to leave the profession.

Again, much of the problem is derived from the need for observable behaviors. I like to think my interactions with students in the classroom are positive and effective, but, as a teacher of literature and especially as a teacher of writing, I know my most important and most valuable work is all but invisible. My greatest strengths, I believe, are in developing questions and writing prompts that navigate students’ interactions with a text, and (even more so) in responding to the students’ work. When a student hands in an essay based on a prompt I’ve given them about a text, it is essentially a diagram of how their mind worked as they read and analyzed the text (a novel, or story, or poem, or film) — a kind of CAT scan if you will — and my task is to interpret the workings of their mind (in what ways did their mind work well, and in what ways did their mind veer off the path somewhat) and then, once I’ve interpreted their mind-at-work, I have to provide them comments which explain my interpretations and (here’s the really, really hard part) also comments which will alter their mental processes so that next time they’ll write a more effective essay. In short, I’m trying to get them to think better and to express their thoughts better. (I should point out that to do all of this, I also have to possess a thorough understanding of the text under consideration — a text perhaps by Homer or Shakespeare or Keats or Joyce or Morrison.)

It’s the most important thing I do, and no one observing me in the classroom will ever see it. If my students improve in their reading and thinking and writing and speaking — largely it will be because of my skill to interact with them productively, brain to brain, on the page. The process is both invisible and essential. This is what teaching English is; this is what English teachers do. And we are not unique, by any means, in the profession. Yet our value — our very job security — is based on behaviors that are secondary or even tangential to the most profound sorts of interactions we have with our students.

I know that purveyors of best practices mean well (for-profit educational consultants aside). They are good, smart people who sincerely believe in what they’re advocating, and frequently a kernel or two of meaningful advice can be derived from the presentation, but we need to stop pretending that there’s one method that will improve all teaching, regardless of the myriad factors which come into play every time a teacher engages a group of students. It makes teaching seem simple, and teaching is many, many, many things but simple isn’t one of them.

(Image found via Google Images here.)

 

 

 

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)

 

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.

Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2017

This paper, “Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 on 23 Feb. 2017 as part of the panel titled “Imagining Space: Experiments in Narrative Form.” The paper veered from its original intent and perhaps a suitable secondary title may be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.” The panel was chaired by Liana Babayan, Augusta University. Other papers presented were “Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Architectural Liminality” by Adam McKee, Queensborough Community College, CUNY; “Haunted Houses from House of Leaves to House of Fiction” by Amanda Davis, University of Chicago; and “Contrasting Spaces in Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose” by Maria Slocum, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Other papers on William H. Gass’s work can be found at this site by searching “gass.”


“For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphorically or philosophically” (Janssens 66). Thus spake William H. Gass in a 1979 interview, about midway through the composition process of his magnum opus The Tunnel, which was published in 1995 after a nearly thirty-year gestation. Sections began appearing in print as early as 1969 and continued off and on for almost two decades, garnering numerous accolades (for example, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1980), and in two instances being released as stand-alone, limited-edition books by art presses. In 1996 Gass’s massive book (over 650 pages of dense prose, riddled with myriad experimental techniques, a host of fonts, amateurish doodles, and other graphic representations) won the American Book Award. Meanwhile, it spawned copious reviews which ranged from fawning to furious. Even some of the novel’s harshest critics, however, acknowledged that it would take decades of scholarly work to fully come to terms with Gass’s achievement—no matter whether one believes he achieved a masterpiece or a monstrosity. Sadly, that work remains largely undone.

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This is at least the third paper I’ve presented at this conference chiefly focused on Gass’s The Tunnel. When his next novel appeared in 2013, Middle C, that much more manageable book led me away from The Tunnel for a paper or two; and I also did some work on Gass’s earlier publications: one of his earliest pieces of published fiction, the novella The Pedersen Kid, and then a paper focused mainly on Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue. Pondering possibilities for this year’s conference, I decided it was time to return to the excavation site and say something further about The Tunnel. I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, and I can only recall one other Gass paper being presented in that time (a Willie Masters’ paper). (When I first started attending the conference I was a William Gaddis guy; I hadn’t yet fallen under the Master’s spell.) My hope has been that by keeping the spark of scholarly interest alive others will join the conversation—and that hope has rested mainly on the book’s artistic merits. However, between the time that I proposed this particular paper topic and now, something historically monumental happened which makes The Tunnel vitally relevant: the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States (and the rise of the alt-right in general). That is to say, the overarching theme of The Tunnel—which Gass has described as “the fascism of the heart”—makes the book amazingly and unfortunately up-to-date. Perhaps an appropriate secondary title for my paper would be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.”

gass-at-desk

Our times have led to a rekindled interest in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian books. For the same reasons it is worthwhile to descend into William Gass’s tunnel, a place whose squalidness has turned away many readers—but these, my friends, are squalid times. So, in the interest of truth in advertising, I am going to discuss (to some degree) the structure of The Tunnel and its relationship to architecture; but I’m also going to talk about the fascism of the heart and what the book has to say about the Trump phenomenon.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly straightforward (although plot doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Gass’s world as it does in most fiction writer’s): The first-person narrator, William Kohler, is a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university who has finally completed his magnum opus, prophetically thirty years in the writing, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He has sat down in his basement office to write the book’s preface (the final nail in this towering edifice, so to speak) when he finds himself blocked and therefore begins writing, instead, a very personal memoir about his unhappy childhood, lackluster career, loveless marriage, lost loves, disappointing children, and irritating colleagues. He slips the pages of this tell-all autobiography in between the manuscript pages of Guilt and Innocence so that his wife won’t see them (having no interest whatsoever in his life’s work), and, meanwhile, he begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement—or at least so we’re told. Gass himself has written in the liner notes of the audiobook edition of The Tunnel (45 hours of listening pleasure) that his narrator is “wholly unreliable”: “That does not mean he never tells the truth. He may always tell the truth. He may never. But he can’t be trusted. So he may not be digging a tunnel out of his basement” (emphasis added). Either way, writes Gass, “[t]he pointlessness of this activity has to be stressed.”

william-and-mary-gass

Returning to my opening quote, Gass has said that “architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists.” He has had a long-standing interest in architecture. It is difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, as Gass married Mary Henderson in 1968. Mary Henderson Gass has had a distinguished career as an architect in St. Louis since moving there with her husband in 1979 when he accepted a professorship at Washington University. (He retired from the university in 2000.) Gass has found the experimental designs of architect Peter Eisenman especially akin to his own literary aesthetic. “He does crazy things in one sense,” said Gass, “but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different” (Janssens 68). Gass’s statement about Eisenman and his work sounds a lot like what defenders of Gass and especially The Tunnel have been saying for years.

In explaining how The Tunnel functions architecturally, Gass has contrasted his work to James Joyce’s, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Gass said,

Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way, Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time, you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish—and Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. (Janssens 66)

Gass continued,

Joyce demands total recall, an ideal total recall. […] I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at the time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists. (67)

In other words, when one reads Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, both of which are structurally linear (a second by second account of a single day in Dublin, Ireland, or the unconscious mind’s progression through a single night of sleep [perhaps]), one is at a different point on the overall timeline with each passing word, and one has to be mindful of that progression to make sense of the experience. In other words, how have we gotten from point A to point B . . . to point Z? Metaphorical connections must be made by recalling earlier parts of the text.

The brutally nonlinear construction of The Tunnel operates differently. To illustrate that difference, Gass referenced Eisenman:

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time [emphasis added]. So in one of his houses, called House Six, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living-room below, and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you […] to look through the house. So I am always aware in that house of other parts. (67)

In the execution of this theory, Gass constructed The Tunnel in twelve parts (which he describes as phillipics, or bitter denunciations), and each consists of twelve “fundamental themes and a lot of minor ones would be sounded in different arrangements so that a central aspect or meaning of the text would emerge at the beginning; then sink down and be relatively innocuous or weak at a certain point”—all of which would be “superimposed on a completely different structure: the tunnel itself” (“William Gass”). Gass, incidentally, is simultaneously using a mimetic musical structure—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system—but we don’t have time to go there too. Thus, while Gass’s narrator Kohler pinballs between his childhood, his career in the army, his grad school days in Germany, his various love affairs, his current life, etc., the author returns again and again to these major and minor motifs. In an artfully designed building each room, each hallway, each alcove, each stairway, and even outdoor spaces reflect certain colors, shapes, themes, and moods that tie them together as being parts of a consistently constructed whole. There are variations of course. A dominant color in the entryway may return as complementary accent color in the master bath, for example. A sailboat model in the library may be echoed by a nautically themed kitchen. So forth and so on. Thus it is with The Tunnel.

As illustration of this technique, I will focus on one of the novel’s major motifs and its juxtaposed doppelgänger: windows and mirrors. Gass seems to want us to pay special attention to windows as he titled the sixth phillipic “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” and it takes up the literal center of his book, pages 282 to 333 out of 652. Also, windows have been metaphorically important throughout Gass’s career. As H. L. Hix points out, “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 previous fiction” (124).  Hix’s observation is a valid one, but I think Gass takes the metaphor further in The Tunnel by pairing it with almost equally numerous references to mirrors. More regarding that in a moment. What follows are only a few examples of window references in the text. The first comes just a few pages into the book when Kohler recalls a car ride with his lost love, Lou: “The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved” (7). This car ride, only briefly mentioned here, foreshadows an episode titled “A Sunday Drive,” which describes in detail a family outing from Kohler’s childhood that is referenced repeatedly in the novel and also prefigures the narrator’s own family outings when he becomes husband and father (always with Gass, repetition, variation, point, counterpoint).

In the central section of the novel, Gass compares a blackboard to a window, writing, “The board is at once the surface of a pit-black sea and a bleak opening onto all our inner spaces. It is the brink of what we are, and hence a horror. […] unlike a window which is always full of the flitter of images […]” (311). Discussing the blackboard’s “opening onto all our inner spaces” (in that professors, like Kohler, use the blackboard to broadcast their beliefs to their students), Gass also connects blackboards to mirrors—both being framed objects antithetical to windows in their own ways. The book’s final reference to windows is about as far from the end as the first reference is from the start, and it’s in an imagined scene with Kohler’s hated wife Martha wherein “[I] lead her to the window [hand in hand … and] put our gazes on together” (650). Kohler imagines trying to get Martha to see the world as profoundly as he does, “but she would interrupt me with a snort from her derision because she despises oratory, wants to slap cheeks when they puff.” We notice the mirror opposites of the first window reference being a recollection of Kohler’s lost true love, Lou, and the final reference being an imagined scene with Kohler’s despised wife. Further linking the two scenes are references to face slapping, one metaphorical, the other imagined but likely. These examples constitute just a tiny taste of the repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, and prismatic reflections, complications and contradictions that appear in some form or another on every page of the novel.

heide-ziegler-and-william-gassWhat then of the mirrors? Again, there are a plethora of references, the first being on page 10 and it is immediately paired with a window (via negation), as Kohler describes his dingy basement work space: “I’ve no mirror, cockeyed or otherwise. One wrinkled window. Above: a worn lace curtain like a rusted screen.” I believe that the pairing of windows with mirrors (and Kohler’s professorial blackboard) is related to the overarching theme of the book as delineated by one of Gass’s most adept readers, Heide Ziegler, a long-time friend and collaborator of William Gass (next to Gass in the photo from a 1991 symposium on postmodernism in Stuttgart, Germany). In response to reviews of the The Tunnel that ran from lukewarm to hostile, Ziegler wrote, in essence, a defense of the book which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998). In the interest of my waning time, I shall cut to the chase of Ziegler’s reading, which unknowingly anticipated the novel’s connections to our own desperate times. The key to understanding the book is in the phrase that Gass identified as its “fundamental subject”: the fascism of the heart. Ziegler writes, “[G]iven the pervasiveness of his message […] it is dangerous to miss the point. His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists” (80). She suggests that the nostalgically tender (and rare) recollections from Kohler’s boyhood contribute to the idea that anyone is capable of being lured into the dark tunnel of fascism. That same boy—who relished dime-store candy and wanted nothing more in this world than a dog of his own to play with—became the young man who succumbed to the mob mentality of Kristallnacht in 1938 and threw a stone through a Jewish storekeeper’s window. I’ll supplement Ziegler’s fine reading by asserting that Gass’s frequent references to mirrors also emphasize Kohler’s (and everyone’s) potential for becoming the same sort of people he spent his academic life studying (gazing upon, if you will, as if through a window): the innocent German citizens who were transformed into the Nazis who were guilty of exterminating six million Jews. Ziegler writes further,

Given the right historical circumstances—economic insecurity, a time of depression—and given the right seducer […] your Everyman will follow that leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune. […] Since […] political agitators possess no true authority, they need to create scapegoats—the Jews in Germany, minorities all over the world. What Gass attempts, and obviously achieves, judging by the emotional responses to his book, is to change the Holocaust from a horrifying, unforgivable, yet singular European spectacle into a general historical possibility. That is the reason that The Tunnel is not about Germany or about Hitler. It is—potentially—about all of us. (80-81)

Referring specifically to the sort of finely tuned brainwashing the military is able to achieve but meaning more broadly the way anyone can be manipulated, Gass writes, “Eventually they compel you to act against your conscience, contrary to your nature, in defiance of every precept of morality and religion, until all that remains of you is your past, your prehensile tale [spelled t-a-l-e], your history. Then they begin on that” (242-43).

I hardly need to point out the parallels between Gass’s description of the Holocaust and our own time, with the rise of Trump and the rhetoric of the alt-right, especially their scapegoating of Muslims, immigrants, liberals, the press, and even the judiciary as reasons for our alleged decreased safety and floundering economy. What is more, on a personal note I’ll say how surprising and discouraging it’s been over the past year to view friends, neighbors and family via the window of Facebook and other social media and discover the fascism of their hearts—their willingness to believe Trump’s lies and to support his undemocratic, unpatriotic and unconstitutional schemes. How best to resist, other than simply by putting a hashtag in front of the word, is a question that millions have been wrestling with. Obviously political action is a necessary part of resistance to this wave of fascism. William Gass dealt with this question, too, in a powerful essay, “The Artist and Society” (first published in The New Republic, July 17, 1968). In it Gass suggests that the artist shouldn’t become involved in a revolution in the typical sorts of ways, but rather he must become involved through his art. He writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inaction is 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). Artists must resist, then, through their art. It is via their art that they can have a greater impact than a mere bomb’s momentary blast.

My original concept of this paper was to discuss how Gass’s techniques align his book with the intentions of aesthetically minded architects—how their conceived ideas, drafted as blueprints and 3D models, are transformed into lived physical spaces, and, similarly, how Gass attempts to make William Kohler’s surreptitiously written memoir materialize in the hands of the reader via the book known as The Tunnel. I planned to make good use of an interesting article coauthored by Gass and his wife, Mary, about the artistic principles of architectural design and their analogues in other forms of art, like writing. And I planned to talk about Gass’s hopes for the publication of his novel, what the publisher and printer were able and willing to execute, and what they weren’t. I also meant to explain my paper’s title regarding “modernism’s last gasp,” comparing, say, Joyce’s efforts to mimic a conscious or unconscious mind versus Gass’s efforts to create a consciousness. But alas those discussions will have to wait for another paper and another day. I encourage you, meanwhile, to risk a visit to The Tunnel, a book suddenly very much for our time.

Works Referenced

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88.

—-. The Tunnel. 1995. Dalkey Archive, 2007.

—-. William H. Gass Reads The Tunnel. [liner notes for the audio book written by the author] Clayton Studios, 2005.

Gass, William H., and Mary Gass. “The Architecture of the Sentence.” Conjunctions, 1999, pp. 93-108. [Available online]

Hix, H. L. “Twenty Questions on The Tunnel.” Understanding William H. Gass, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 76-139.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-70.

“William Gass with Michael Silverblatt” (5 Nov. 1998). Vimeo, uploaded by Lannan Foundation, 2011, https://vimeo.com/12812717.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 71-83.

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.)