12 Winters Blog

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!

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Accidental Poets: Paul Valéry’s influence on William Gass

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

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


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

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

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

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

For your consideration, from The Tunnel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chaos and Despair: Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters”

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 21, 2015

Denis Johnson has called his novel The Laughing Monsters a “literary thriller,” as it chronicles the chaotic odyssey of a pair of rogue intelligence operatives from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to the ambiguous border area of Uganda and the DR Congo. After a couple of careful readings, I half-agree with the author. I don’t find the book the page-turning ride that thriller suggests, but my appreciation of the book and what Johnson has achieved in its writing definitely waxed as I re-read it in preparation for this review—and that, I believe, is the acid-test definition of literary.

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel, by Denis Johnson. FSG, 2014, 228 pages.

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel, by Denis Johnson. FSG, 2014, 228 pages.

A story sometimes spends years incubating in Johnson’s imagination before he starts writing it, he says, and my suspicion is that The Laughing Monsters had an especially long incubation. For one, in its characters and plot he returns to familiar territory, even familial territory. The first-person narrator Roland Nair, a captain in the Danish military, works for NATO intelligence, mainly as a tech/communications expert, and he’s traveled to Sierra Leone to meet his long-time friend Michael Adriko, a Congolese who has been trained as a professional soldier and has served in various armies, including as an instructor to the American Green Berets. The world of intelligence gathering and covert operations is reminiscent of Johnson’s 2007 novel Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award. For both, he drew from his childhood experiences growing up the son of a father in the U.S. State Department who regularly mixed with diplomats, military personnel, and agents of the CIA and FBI.

But the literary influences on Johnson’s writing of The Laughing Monsters are perhaps even more significant, and in particular one can see shades of Malcolm Lowry’s classic Under the Volcano (1947), which Johnson cited as being especially influential on his writing in a Bookworm radio interview in 1992. In terms of their similarities, one is that Volcano’s central character, Geoffrey Firmin, spends the entire novel in an alcohol-induced fog, while Johnson’s Nair forces brief periods of sobreity on himself but otherwise is ingesting whatever sort of alcohol he can get his hands on, from vodka shots in plastic pouches to the homebrew of Congolese herdsmen. What is more, Under the Volcano focuses on a love triangle between Firman, his estranged wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh; and Johnson introduces into his narrative mix the beautiful and bright Davidia St. Claire, an American graduate student who is Adriko’s fiancée and also the daughter of Colonel Marcus St. Claire, the garrison commander at Fort Carson and Adriko’s commanding officer—to which news Nair is left speechless other than to repeat “Oh my lord” three times.

Lowry’s title refers to the volcanoes Popocatepeti and Iztaccihuatl that overshadow the small Mexican town where Firmin’s drama unfolds, and they seem to symbolize the doom that hangs over the characters, the futility of their trying to set their lives aright. The Laughing Monsters, meanwhile, is the nickname of the mountains where Michael Adriko’s clan lives—or at least where they lived when he was a boy, before being dislocated—and they serve as a sort of Ithacan objective in that he wants his marriage to Davidia to take place there, with Nair acting as witness and best man. The Laughing Monsters are central to the symbolic structure of Johnson’s novel. Akin to Lowry’s volcanoes, the mountains represent the futility of trying to Westernize Africa. Nair informs us that Adriko calls “the hills of his childhood, the Happy Mountains,” but the Christian missionary James Harrington (executed by King Mwanga II of Buganda by being speared to death in 1885) called them “the Laughing Monsters” in “frustration and disgust.”

Adriko, a trained killer, is also a laughing monster of a kind. Early in the novel, Nair describes his friend as “[a]lways laughing, never finished talking. A hefty, muscular frame, but with angular grace. You know what I mean: not a thug. Still—lethal.” And like so much in the novel, Nair’s relationship with Adriko is constantly shifting between opposite poles. At times Nair is dependent on him for protection in the dangerous world they’re navigating, and at other times he’s cautious of him as just another dangerous element.

And here is where the beauty of Johnson’s novel lies. He has meticulously constructed a narrative of dualities where nothing is at it seems for long, and the only fact that one can count on is that each fact will soon wear a different color. These shifting uncertainties are everywhere in the book and perhaps best represented by Nair and Adriko’s discussion as to Michael’s current military status. Adriko says, “Officially I’ve deserted, but in truth I’m returning to the loyalty I ran away from. What is desertion? Desertion is a coin. You turn it over, and it’s loyalty”—a concept whose truth Nair easily accepts.

Michael’s plan to marry Davidia (and Nair’s plan to steal her for his own before the wedding) drives the plot forward, as do Nair’s and Adriko’s schemes for getting rich in Africa—a “land of chaos, despair,” as Nair calls it. The friends mainly keep each other in the dark, however, while somehow also attempting to work together to their mutual benefit. To try to convince Nair that he should support his scheme, which involves purloined uranium, Adriko paints a ravaged-Africa version of the American Dream: “You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers will come to you for everything. They bring their daughters, twelve years old—virgins, Nair, no AIDS from these girls. You’ll have a new one every night. Five hundred men in your militia. You know you want it.”

Johnson stylizes Adriko as a Mephistophelean magician who tempts what should be a Faustian Nair—but the book’s ultimate laugh is that Nair is a cog in a machine which has already conjured its own version of hell that is far darker than any that mere mythology can construct.

Interview with Lynette D’Amico: Road Trip

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

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

Road Trip - front cover for DIGITAL

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

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

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

Lynette-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Body Artist, Don DeLillo.

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

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

Tinkers, Paul Harding

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

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

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

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell

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

Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje

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

Why Did I Ever, Mary Robison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your current writing/creative projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Author photo by Meg Taintor)

Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving

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

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

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

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

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William H. Gass at 90: Passages of Time

Posted in September 2014 by Ted Morrissey on September 28, 2014

I’ve just returned from Washington University in St. Louis where I attended “Passages of Time: A literary event marking the 90th birthday of celebrated author William H. Gass.” The reading and reception were held in Umrath Lounge from 4 to 6 p.m. After welcoming and introductory remarks by Jeffrey Trzeciak, University Librarian, and Dr. Gerhild Williams, German professor and vice provost, Gass read from several of his works for about 40 minutes.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

Gass, or “The Master,” as I call him, arrived via wheelchair and gave his reading from a chair, but while his mobility was impaired, he appeared sharp of mind and his voice was clear and  robust–not remarkably different from other readings of his that I attended in 2008 (AWP Conference in Chicago) and 2013 (Left Bank Books in St. Louis). For the most part, Gass read from his works in published chronological order, beginning with passages from the novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966), followed by selections from “Order of Insects” (in 1969’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), The Tunnel (1995), “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” (in 1998’s Cartesian Sonata), Middle C (2013), and concluding with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” (in Reading Rilke, 1999).

Between selections, Gass spoke briefly about each piece, often humorously. Upon finishing his reading, the large gathering gave the author an enthusiastic standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, Gass said, “Rilke is good.”

Several of Gass’s books have been re-released and were available at the reading and reception in autographed editions. Unfortunately, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country had not arrived in time for the event. Gass has supposedly been working on a new story collection as well as a new collection of novellas, a form that he especially likes.  I hope to hear the author reading from those books at his 100th birthday celebration.

I recommend the following links to learn more about The Master:

Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections (the William H. Gass Papers and International Writers Center)

“William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence” (digitized manuscripts, photographs, readings and more)

And keep up to date on Gass events and happenings at ReadingGass.org

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass's reading.

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass’s reading. (Photo by my wife, Melissa)

Interview with J.D. Schraffenberger: The Waxen Poor

Posted in July 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2014

I don’t recall the exact year that I met Jeremy Schraffenberger (2005? — give or take), but it was definitely at the University of Louisville during its annual literature and culture conference. I chaired a critical panel on which Jeremy was presenting a paper. As the day progressed and we ran into each other here and there, we discovered that while we both enjoyed academic writing, creative writing was our true passion — mine, specifically, fiction, and his poetry. Over the years we often met up in Louisville, and when my first novel, Men of Winter, came out in 2010, Jeremy was kind enough to help me set up a reading in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of Jim O’Laughlin’s Final Thursday Reading Series. By then Jeremy (who publishes and edits under the initials J.D.) was on the tenure track in the English Department at the University of Northern Iowa and part of the editorial masthead of the North American Review. In the summer of 2013 I was able to return the favor and arranged for Jeremy to come to Springfield, Illinois, to be a “Poet in the Parlor” at the historic Vachel Lindsay Home; while he was in town, he also gave a fascinating talk on the history of the North American Review and its fast-approaching bicentennial (in 2015) — the talk was hosted by Adam Nicholson at The Pharmacy Art Center.

In 2012, I established Twelve Winters Press with the intention of using it to bring out my books, or keep them in print, and to bring out the literary work of others. Last winter I contacted Jeremy about possibly working with the Press on some sort of project under his editorial direction — and much to my delight he informed me he had a collection, The Waxen Poor, that he was interested in publishing. He sent me the manuscript, which I was able to read (again, much to my delight) before meeting him in Louisville for the conference this past February. After his reading in the beautiful Bingham Poetry Room in Ekstrom Library, we sat down to cups of coffee in the Library’s Tulip Tree Café and discussed his collection and made plans to bring it out this summer.

I’m happy to report that The Waxen Poor is indeed out. See Twelve Winters Press’s Poetry Titles page for full details.

The Waxen Poor - front cover (1)

I interviewed Jeremy via email about his intriguing collection, which includes poems published in such notable journals as Brevity, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many others. What follows are his unedited responses to my questions. When I had the honor of introducing Jeremy at the Vachel Lindsay Home, I said that I always enjoyed his readings because he was the sort of poet that I respected most: one who takes his poetry seriously but not himself. I believe this engaging combination of qualities is apparent here.

Jeremy for The Waxen Poor - 400 (1)

What’s the time span represented by the poems in The Waxen Poor? That is, how early is the earliest poem and how recent the most recent?

The earliest piece in the collection — and the one that really sparked this whole project — is the prose poem “Full Gospel,” which was originally published in the summer of 2006 in Brevity and was later reprinted in Best Creative Nonfiction. I bring this up only because I find the question of genre interesting. I originally wrote “Full Gospel” as a poem, but then as I started to revise, I became less and less interested in lines and line breaks and more and more interested in segmentation or braiding as a way to craft the piece. I can’t say that I was consciously blurring generic boundaries — I was just trying to write something true — but I’m still not quite sure how to categorize it. Is it an essay? A poem? A prose poem? In the end, I suppose, that’s not terribly important, but insofar as it might reveal something about the composition process — in this case, I think, how memory is organized — I think it’s an intriguing question.

Two other early pieces are the first one in the collection, “Brother Tom,” and the last, “Born for Adversity.” It was important, I think, that I knew where I was heading as I wrote and revised. I would certainly not consider The Waxen Poor a novel in verse, but I did feel that there was something of a narrative arc, if not an actual plot — even if it remained subtextual — that guided me along as I worked. I had a clear sense of the beginning and I knew the end, and so the challenge became what to do with the long expansive middle. As Margaret Atwood wrote, “True connoisseurs … are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.”

The most recent poem in the collection is the sequence of “Judas” poems, which came as something of a surprise to me as I wrote them. I hadn’t expected to cast “Brother Tom” as a Judas character, but there it is. Sometimes you can’t — and maybe you shouldn’t — control your characters. You can see that I’m trying to complicate Judas/Tom, though, by calling him “A man of tradition, assassin of the ages, / My translator, my traitor, my Judas, my friend” — the same kind of complication I’m attempting to bring to the entire collection. These “Judas” poems came to me about three years ago, and so The Waxen Poor represents five years of work.

Did you set out to write a collection around the topic of “Brother Tom,” or did the concept of collecting them develop over time? Either way, can you describe the thought process behind the collection?

In my mind The Waxen Poor was always a cohesive project. After “Full Gospel” I began organizing individual pieces around the character of “Brother Tom.” I wanted to explore this fraught relationship between two brothers, each of whom is like the other but also quite different — one a poet, the other struggling with mental illness. The poems are meant to be both personal and more broadly mythological, and I’ve tried to balance (or “harmonize” might be a better word) the experiential with the imagined, the everyday with the elevated. You could also say that the project is in some ways a coping mechanism, like Eliot’s “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” That is, how are we to deal with the pain and suffering in the world but through our art? When trying to understand and contend with something like mental illness, some of us turn to art, to poetry, for answers.

Many of the poems seem to be highly personal in their subject matter. Can you discuss the process of tapping into those emotions via the creative process?

As I said, I see the collection as something of a coping mechanism — but then in some ways, all art functions as a mechanism of this kind, even if you’re not dealing with emotionally fraught subjects. What do we make of this world around us and all of the various experiences we have? How do we give our lives any kind of meaning but by forming it, shaping it? Even the most experimental, appropriative forms of conceptualism in which all subjectivity has been evacuated are ways to cope.

That said, there are some poems in The Waxen Poor I can’t read in public anymore because they’re too emotionally difficult for me to get through, but I think that probably means something important is happening. I try to tell this to my creative writing students, that if something is too painful to write, you should write it, not for the sake of therapy — though that might end up being part of it — but because when a poem is difficult in this way, you’re getting near something that you care deeply about, even if it’s in ways that you can’t quite articulate yet. When we find a form for our pain or confusions, we’re allowing others to identify with it, with us. We’re letting our readers in.

The form of these poems varies considerably, and there are even some prose poems included in the collection. Can you discuss the interplay between subject and form for you as a poet? For example, how much one influences the other?

I’m a formalist insofar as I believe that form is meaning. To sever the two is to do a deep violence to the poem — and to misread it entirely. I think it takes a long time before this insight, which is easy enough to say and understand intellectually, sinks in deeply enough for it to be true as a writer. Or at least this has been the case for me. The prose poem is a perfect example of this fusion between form and meaning. I never set out to write the prose poem sequences you find in this collection. Rather, I discovered that this was the form the poem had to take — especially the somewhat surreal ones in which the thoughts and images and phenomena all seem to tumble forth, like consciousness itself. Likewise, some of the unrhymed sonnets in the collection were discovered. That is, as I began writing, I felt the rhetorical movement of the sonnet happening, the turn, and so I began shaping it accordingly. This means paying attention to more than just the “subject,” more than what the poem is supposedly “about,” and opening yourself up to different ways of knowing.

But there are a handful of exceptions. The poem “Abecedarian Advice” is a received form that I didn’t “discover” but rather imposed on myself as a challenge. And the four “Meds” poems are acrostics that spell out the names of the antipsychotic drugs “Haldol,” “Thorazine,” “Zyprexa,” and “Lithium” down the left margins of the poems. I like the way these formal experiments turned out because I found that I ended up thinking about things I never would have thought about before. The somewhat arbitrary restraint can ironically be very liberating. In fact, I think the acrostic is the most underrated form. With other forms, like the sonnet, for example, you’re dealing not only with external characteristics like rhyme and meter but also an internal rhetorical shape that isn’t always the right fit for the poem. The acrostic, though, can accommodate absolutely anything. It gets a bad rap and seems unsophisticated because we’ve all written them in elementary school. But I think there’s something refreshing about the form’s simplicity.

Several of the poems in the collection had been published individually, but it seemed that you hadn’t been circulating the collection for a while. Can you discuss the history of the collection in terms of your thoughts on its publication as a whole?

Well, I did send this manuscript out into the world for a while, entering it into contests and open reading periods at a handful of presses that I like. But I’m a constant and somewhat obsessive reviser, so I pulled it back and have been working on it periodically for a few years. I’d add a poem, remove a poem, tinker with the chronology, worry over line breaks. Was it Valéry who said that a poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned? I guess that feeling had something to do with it — a desire not to abandon the poems. And because it’s a collection that I care deeply about and is in some ways very personal, I felt it had to be just right — and it had to find the right place, too, that would present it in the way I think it needs to be presented. I’d say it’s finally ready for the world, and so I’m excited now that it’s found a great home with Twelve Winters.

You play with both Christian and Classical allusions (and bring these together in the title and cover illustration, which you found). Why overtly connect these two traditions?  What do you think is the effect of their interplay in the collection?

First, I’d say that even though I am not a Christian, Christian symbols and metaphors are culturally inescapable. And so these stories and images live with us and inform our very identities quite deeply. To deny them is to deny a rich vein of cultural and personal meaning. So, too, with the Greeks. As much as the Christian bible, the Iliad is a foundational text that we should allow to enter and affect our work, even today. In this way, I’d call myself a traditional poet — though that word “tradition” rings vaguely conservative, doesn’t it? What I mean to suggest is that I’m traditional in that I attend to the past — this great gift of literature that has been left to us — and try to make meaning of and from it. I’m reminded of something Barry Lopez wrote: “If art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.” I suppose I’d say that what I’m trying to do is in this collection — and in all of my work, really — is to respond to the letter that’s been sent to us from the past, while writing a letter of my own in the present. Not to mix my metaphors, but I believe artists are not so much influenced by tradition as they exist at a confluence, where the past meets the present, like two rivers meeting.

With your wife Adrianne Finlay being a novelist, you’re a two-writer household. I suspect that creates an interesting dynamic. Can you discuss what that is like, and how it may affect your own creativity?

My wife is always my first reader — and my best. Having another writer in the house is always beneficial for when you want to know if something makes sense or sounds right. But also because there’s a mutual understanding that we each need time to do our work, and so we make time for each other in that way. Of course, a big difference is that she deals with long narratives while I deal with shorter lyrical pieces, and so we’re often trying to accomplish much different things. For Adrianne, I think, clarity is very important — as is plot — whereas I might value strangeness or obscurity in a poem. As a poet, I also think the form is just as important as the meaning — as I said before, it is the meaning — but writers of novels I think tend to be less interested — not uninterested, just less interested in the overt music of language. Or they want to foreground something else. To dwell too decidedly on sound and language might interfere with the story. That said, we both teach fiction and poetry, and so we’re each well enough acquainted with the other’s genre to be good readers. And so, while The Waxen Poor is, indeed, a collection of lyrical poems, I do think that my work slips in and out of narrative and dramatic modes, too. That’s something I think I pay more attention to because of Adrianne.

What projects are you working on now?

What’s been occupying a lot of my creative energies lately is my work as associate editor of the North American Review. The magazine was founded in 1815, so we’re about to celebrate our bicentennial, which is really quite remarkable. I mean, how many things in the United States get to celebrate a bicentennial? It’s exciting but humbling. At any rate, I’m directing a conference to mark the occasion. We have so many great events planned, including keynote readings by Martín Espada, Patricia Hampl, and Steven Schwartz. People can find the call for papers here.

I’m also editing a book called Walt Whitman and the North American Review, which collects the seven essays Whitman published in the NAR in the last decade of his life, along with the many reviews, essays, and articles on him and his work that appeared in the magazine’s pages. Editorial work is challenging but also deeply gratifying.

J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s the author of the collection of poems Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Mid-American Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his two daughters and his wife, the novelist Adrianne Finlay.

(Author Photo by Adrianne Finlay)

 

 

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2014

My paper, “Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C,” was presented Feb. 20, 2014, at the Louisville Conference on Literature Culture Since 1900 as part of the panel “The New Adventures of Old Debates: Postmodernism and the New Sincerity,” chaired by Nick Curry, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘Everything is ending but not yet’: Post-Modern Irony and the New Sincerity in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Katherine Leake Weese, Hampden-Sydney College; and “Liminality and Dialogism: Dreamscape Narratives in Donald Barthelme’s Postmodern Paradise” by Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior. (A much abridged version of this paper appeared as a review in North American Review, 298.4. Search this blog for other Gass papers.)

Middle C image

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

by Ted Morrissey, University of Illinois Springfield

A long and complex novel, or series of novels . . . may present us with a world complete through every principle and consequence, rivaling in its comprehensiveness the most grandiose philosophical systems. (Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” 9)

With the release of Middle C in 2013, William H. Gass’s third novel, one imagines that Gass has attempted to do just that:  present us with a world complete.  For the past half century, William Gass has been one of America’s most prolific essayists and literary critics, as well as one of its most receptive interviewees.  Consequently, his ideas about writing, especially about writing the novel and what makes a great one, are well documented, and they’ve remained amazingly consistent decade after decade.  Middle C, even more so than his previous two novels, is a praxis of his most heartfelt theories—which makes it a deliberately challenging read, deliberately aimed at a rapidly disappearing readership.  What is more, given Gass’s age, Middle C may prove to be the final argument in his legendary debate with John Gardner in which aesthetics was pitted against morality as the rubric for assessing great literature.

Gass, who was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924, is a self-acknowledged slow writer of his own fiction.  Therefore, his novels have appeared with great gaps of time in between:  Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (1995), and now Middle C—with an iconic collection of stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a highly experimental novella (?), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and a collection of novellas, Cartesian Sonata (1998), rounding out his books of fiction.  Meanwhile, the professor of philosophy, retired from Washington University in St. Louis, has published ten collections of essays and criticism between 1970 and 2012.  Conversations with William H. Gass, a compendium of just some of his copious interviews, was released by University Press of Mississippi in 2003.

This paper will deal with Gass’s concept of narrative structure that he refers to as layering, his views on characterization, and his sense of morality’s proper place in fiction.

In Middle C, via the novel’s singular focus, music professor Joseph Skizzen, Gass demonstrates the narrative elements he believes to be essential to great fiction, but also the ones that have prevented him from being a best-selling author—though they have garnered him numerous honors and accolades, including the American Book Award for The Tunnel, a ponderous novel twenty-six years in the writing, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Though not a musician himself, Gass has long been fascinated with musical composition and has tried to structure his novels as if they were orchestral arrangements.  More important, Gass’s nonlinear structural technique that he refers to as layering mimics musical composition, he believes, because the goal of a great novel is to affect the reader as a whole creation:  “[T]he linear element in fiction is inescapable and must be dealt with, used just as it is in music, but there are other elements too, equally important.  So I have a kind of view of a work as being layered:  certain layers, or certain aspects of it, are nonlinear and certain aspects are linear. Then what becomes interesting is the tension, the contrasts, contradictions between the layers” (Janssens 60-61).

The result of layering is a narrative that shifts relentlessly between Skizzen’s childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond to nearing retirement age, forcing readers to acquire their temporal bearings with each new section.  It is useful that each phase of Skizzen’s life tends to take place in a distinct setting with different casts of characters (except for the professor’s mother, Miriam, as she is a constant throughout).  Gass also provides some assistance in how he references Skizzen as either Joey or Joseph, but ultimately the two names appear side by side in the novel as if the young and old versions of his character become conjoined twins and experience the world through dual perceptions.

The merciless shifting in time is due to the thematic elements in the book. Gass writes in “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” “But there are some points in a narrative which remain relatively fixed; we may depart from them, but soon we return, as music returns to its theme” (49).  In The Tunnel, Gass employed a twelve-part structure suggestive of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pattern.  “That is how I began working out the way for the various themes to come in and out,” said Gass. “It’s layered that way too” (Kaposi 135).  In Middle C, Gass has returned to the concept of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system but even more overtly.  For one thing, Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, like Alan Berg and Anton Webern, are discussed at various points in the novel via Professor Skizzen’s lectures; and Skizzen himself effects the aura of a Viennese intellectual, reflective of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of musical composers.  Also, throughout the novel Skizzen wrestles with a sentence, or series of sentences, having to do with the destructive nature of the human race, as he continually composes the thought, critiques it, and revises it.  Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation:  “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352).  Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.  The twelve-tone system has four parts, described as Prime—Retrograde—Inverse—Retrograde Inverse.  As such, the primacy of “First Skizzen felt” is represented literally with the word First, while “mankind must perish” suggests the retrograde movement of the species from existence to extinction.  “Then he feared” marks the inverse of Skizzen’s initial impression, and “it might survive” is the retrograde inverse because it reverses his belief that mankind will become extinct and concludes that it will actually persist.

In a microcosmic sense, Skizzen’s capturing of the perfect expression of his fears about the human race reflect Gass’s overarching strategy of novel composition, which he expressed in a 2012 Tin House interview:  “You want to organize and make sense out of it on a conceptual level as well as a physical, or musical, level.  And indeed, a spatial level.  Like a parking garage, there are a bunch of levels” (Gerke 41).  On the page, Gass, as he often has, uses typographical features to suggest the multilayered nature of Skizzen’s expression, by indenting, tabbing and boldfacing the words, so that visually they draw attention to their deeper meanings and associations. This evolving thought about humanity is associated with another reoccurring element in the novel, Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum, which is a collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, and handwritten notecards that detail horrific human actions:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby:  the Inhumanity Museum. . . . Sometimes he changed the [name] placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum. . . . Daily, he would escape his sentence to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record. (55)

And just as Gass returns to the evolving sentence throughout the novel, he also references the Inhumanity Museum and its growing record of atrocities.  Hence, the motif of humans’ inhumanity to other humans demonstrates one of Gass’s other important theories about fictional narrative:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  He writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (“The Concept of Character” 49, 50).  Perhaps Gass’s interest in developing ideas as characters and not people stems from his most fundamental affections.   In the Tin House interview, he acknowledged that he “hate[s] the species” and aligns himself with Spinoza’s advocacy of “lov[ing] ideas” (Gerke 33, 36).  People, he says, are less trustworthy than objects, and the singular focus of Middle C, Joseph Skizzen, reflects that lack of trustworthiness in that the music professor is a complete fraud who constructs his career, and his very life, from forged documents and fabricated CVs.

Gass said that Skizzen was based on a real history professor at Wooster College in Ohio who was living under a false identity and on the run from both the English and Canadian authorities.  Gass remarked, “I want to talk about—or deal with—somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort.  Professor Skizzen obtains his position with false CVs [. . .] but he gradually expands his dreamland to include the classes he starts to teach” (Gerke 37-8).  Skizzen’s falseness even extends to his supposed admiration of Schoenberg, whom he chose as a pet topic because no one knew much about him.  Perhaps Skizzen’s irreverent strategy reflects to some degree Gass’s own choice of Schoenberg’s twelve-part system to use as a controlling structure for his fiction.  In writing criticism, Gass had to stay within the boundaries of expectation, he said, but for his fiction, which has been more important to him, “there are no expectations, there is no job to fulfill,” allowing him “to be more outrageous, or daring” (32).

Gass’s emphases in Middle C on inhumane behavior and on Skizzen’s profound falseness represent another of his theories about artistic, versus popular, writing.  On the one hand, Gass has said that significant novels need to be about significant themes.  In the essay “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” Gass writes, “[T]he form and method of metaphor are very much like the form and method of the novel. . . . [T]he artist is able to organize whole areas of human thought and feeling, and to organize them concretely, giving to his model the quality of sensuous display.” He goes on,

[T]hen imagine the Oriental deviousness, the rich rearrangement, the endless complications of the novel conceived as I suggest it should be, as a monumental metaphor, a metaphor we move at length through, the construction of a mountain with its views, a different, figured history to stretch beside our own, a brand-new ordering both of the world and our understanding. (68-9)

Yet this world-altering effect must be executed via mundane plot details.  Gass said, “. . . I want to avoid as much as possible situations, extreme situations whose reality is strong because then the reader is reading it like a newspaper or something.  If you’re going to write aesthetically about it, you have to defuse its power in order to get anybody to pay any attention to the nature of the prose” (Gerke 42-3).  He said that “ninety percent of bad literature” was due to writers focusing on the sensational act itself, the part of real life that is “quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (43).  As such, Professor Skizzen’s achievement of the perfect twelve-part sentence about humans’ inhumanity acts as a kind of climax for Middle C, and Skizzen’s feared defrocking, which occupies the final pages of the novel, is a sort of anticlimax juxtaposed against the truly climactic narrative event.

This avoidance of the extreme situation has been practiced by Gass ever since his very first written narrative, from about 1951, the novella “The Pedersen Kid,” which carefully sidesteps descriptions of child abuse, molestation, kidnapping, rape and murder, leaving them merely implied on the fringes of the plot.  And in The Tunnel, Gass’s most ambitious work, the Holocaust remains in the background while the novel’s protagonist secretly digs a hole to nowhere in his basement.

Gass is in his ninetieth year, and it’s all but certain that he will not write any other novels.  He’s said that more novellas, stories, essays and literary criticism could be forthcoming, so Middle C may well be his closing argument in his famous debate with John Gardner, who died in 1982.  Gass and Gardner’s debate regarding the chief aim of fiction was often carried out in private, but it also became very public, being transcribed in various interviews and even fictionalized by Larry McCaffery in The Literary Review as a Point-Counterpoint-style “confrontation” (135).  At the risk of oversimplifying their positions … Gardner believed that literature’s highest calling was to put forward a moral, life-affirming message, while Gass believed that literature’s highest calling was to be something beautiful, a work of linguistic art.  Gass said in a 1978 interview, “There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is.  I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness.  John and others have values which they think are important.  Beauty, after all, is not very vital for people.  I think it is very important . . .” (LeClair 55).  Gardner’s view was that “you create in the reader’s mind a vivid and continuous dream . . . living a virtual life, making moral judgments in a virtual state” (49-50).

More than a decade after Gardner’s death, with the publication of The Tunnel, whose narrator, history professor Frederick Kohler, seems to sympathize with the Nazis, Gass was still clarifying his position on morality versus art in literature.  He said that his “position [had] been frequently misunderstood, almost invariably” (Kaposi 122).  He went on,

Ethical, political, and social concerns will be present in every writer’s work at every point.  The question is not that; the question is how you write about them. . . . My view is that you don’t judge a work to be beautiful because it’s morally uplifting or tells the truth about things.  And it’s perfectly possible for a work to be beautiful and not tell the truth, and in fact to be morally not a very nice thing.  Ideally of course it would be all these things at once. (122)

Unlike Kohler, Joseph Skizzen is clearly appalled by human behavior, like the Holocaust.  In his lectures on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, Skizzen contemplates how Jews were able to reconcile “the Almighty’s malevolence . . . a punishment long in coming and therefore most deserved” (209).  Thus, in the context of a novel in which nothing much happens, certainly nothing earthshattering, Gass interjects significant moral issues, especially involving humakind’s inhumane treatment of itself.  In The Tunnel, Gass created a character and a book who were “morally not a very nice thing,” and it seemed to distract many readers from its artfulness, its literary beauty.  In a 1998 interview, Gass responded to critic Robert Atler’s assertion that The Tunnel was an immoral book because of the way it treated the Holocaust by saying that it must be “to some sorts of reader an immoral book.  I want it to be for them.  I want it misread in a certain way by certain people.  It’s for me the proof in the pudding” (Abowitz 144). Gass said that he considers Middle C “a much lighter” book (Gerke 38), even though he deals with many of the same issues as in The Tunnel.  What makes it seem lighter, perhaps, is the first-person narrator’s posture toward atrocities like the Holocaust.

In the end, then, Gass has found a way to create a work of literary art while also taking the higher moral ground that his friend John Gardner advocated.  Gardner said in 1978 that his “ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books” (LeClair 55)—maybe he managed to change Gass’s final novel from beyond the grave.

Gass is adamant that he’s written his last novel as a matter of practicality—after all, eighteen years elapsed between The Tunnel and Middle C (“I can’t live forever,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)—but he’s working on a collection of essays, a collection short stories (alluded to in the mid-1990s and still not complete apparently), and he’s planning another novella or two.

Let me end on a personal and professional note:  I’m planning to edit a series of books on Gass’s work through Twelve Winters Press, and about a week ago I put out a call for submissions (of abstracts) for the first anthology, titled Critical Perspectives on William H. Gass: The Novellas.  Please visit TwelveWinters.com/submissions for details and to access the submissions portal. You can also follow my 12 Winters Blog and ReadingGass.org for updates on the project.

Works Cited

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

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

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

—. “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 55-76. Print.

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

—. “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 3-26. Print.

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

Henderson, Jane. “William Gass: At 88, Gass Has Written Last Novel—But Not Last Book.” 10 Mar. 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” 1979. Ammon 56-70.

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

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction.” 1978. Ammon 46-55.

McCaffery, Larry. “The Gass-Gardner Debate: Showdown on Main Street.” The Literary Review 23.1 (fall 1979): 134-144. Print.

Chapter One of An Untimely Frost

Posted in January 2014 by Ted Morrissey on January 28, 2014

Below is the first chapter of my new novel An Untimely Frost, published by Twelve Winters Press earlier this month. The story was inspired by Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Listen to an interview by WUIS’s Rachel Otwell.

from An Untimely Frost copyright © 2014 Ted Morrissey. All rights reserved.

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

Chapter One

The London streets confounded me. I had the address of her residence, obtained via my London publisher—how difficult could it be to find, 261½ Wicker’s Lane? How difficult indeed! The cut of my suit was like a giant flame for the moth-like streetpeople, hawking their wares directly in my face, so that I smelled their rotting teeth and breakfasts of spoiled turnips and onions. And solicitous women . . . at ten in the morning? Even Old New Yorkers waited until after a proper luncheon for such engagements, I would think.

In spite of the distractions I found the inauspicious house on Wicker’s Lane. I stood across from it and gazed somewhat in awe: here was the residence of Margaret T. Haeley, authoress of so many of my fretful nights. For months after reading Dunkelraum, before I could settle into sleep, I would check under my bed and in the wardrobe for Mrs. Haeley’s monster—ridiculous, I knew even then, for a giant to be lurking in such small places. But if it were possible at all for her monster to exist, my still childish mind must have reasoned, then it was equally possible for him to break the physical laws of space.

My wonder at Mrs. Haeley’s monster contributed in no mean part to my wanting to take up the pen myself. (Which reminded me, I still needed to finish the proof-sheets for Andersen’s Romance; Murry—that was Mr. A. B. C. Murry of Claxton House—was, I imagined, growing impatient as he wanted to capitalize on the renewed interest in America in Sunnydale, my second book and first full-length novel; there was a stage play in the works, rumored to be starring none other than Mr. Junius Booth. Murry had had the proof-sheets delivered to the hotel and the stack was waiting in my room upon my arrival. No rest for the weary, they say.)

The thought of the house’s occupant quickened my pulse but the narrow-shouldered structure itself was remarkably unremarkable: brown-stained boards (in need of fresh stain) which led one’s eye to black-shuttered windows that were too small for the house’s two and a half storeys; the windows gave the impression the old house was squinting. I recalled the boyhood trick of squinting at an object until the act of only partial seeing—of shutting out more and more light—transformed the object into something altogether of another world. I was tempted to narrow my eyes at the old structure. . . .

Church-bells’ pealing in the neighborhood broke my reverie. I was readying myself to cross the lane and call on Mrs. Haeley when I noticed a slightly built black fellow approach the house with a leather tote of wood—wood, yes, I realized, but not split logs or kindling as such—rather broken pieces of furniture: a severed table leg protruded conspicuously from the tote, which the fellow balanced quite easily on his narrow shoulder. He bypassed Mrs. Haeley’s front steps and instead went to an alternate door to the side, below street level, that I had not observed at all. A moment to fiddle with the lock and the black fellow with his sticks of furniture disappeared from view.

I waited for a dray to pass; the malnourished beast pulling it deposited a fresh dollop of manure in the lane. Then, dodging the droppings, I went to Mrs. Haeley’s front door. There was a bell-key positioned beneath a pane of stained glass, glass which was too smudged and greasy for me to make out its figures. I turned the key and heard the rattling chime within. I imagined its echoing in the empty foyer of a haunted and abandoned house. . . . Thinking of Mrs. Haeley’s monster had worked its old spell on my fancy.

I waited, listening to the noises of the streetpeople behind me. I did not want to appear rude but I turned the bell-key again. After all, I knew someone was inside. Another long period elapsed. I took my card from my vest pocket (beforehand I had added the name of my hotel, The Saint Georges) and I was intending to slip the card through the postman’s slot when I heard footsteps inside, then the bolt . . . bolts (four!) were moved aside, and the door slowly and creakily receded but only about a hand’s length. “Yes?” came a man’s voice, English but not a Londoner it seemed. It was gloomy inside Mrs. Haeley’s house but with the little daylight leaking into the narrow space I realized the gatekeeper (I thought of Macbeth’s jocular one) was the slightly built black fellow.

“Hello there; I’ve come to pay my regards to Mrs. Haeley—a mutual friend recommends me.” Friend was a bit strong as I wasn’t certain that any true ones existed in the book business but I hoped the innocent embellishment would gain me admittance.

“Mrs. Haeley is not receiving callers today, sir. Thank you . . .” and he began to close the door.

“Wait—please—I’ve come such a long way—” It was true, and my feet were starting to pain me again. “Will you at least present her my card?” I held it in the narrow opening and felt the foyer’s draft on my fingers. The fellow’s hand came up, perhaps reluctantly, to take it. The realization struck me that there was no proper servant in Mrs. Haeley’s house, just this taciturn handyman or whatever he was, who completed the task and shut the door without further word. The bolts were slid back into place.

I stood a moment at Mrs. Haeley’s door, nonplussed at being turned away so unceremoniously; then I began my descent of the five steps but halted when I heard the bolts again. The door opened more fully this time and the black fellow stood in its frame. “Jefferson Wheelwright—author of Sunnydale and the Old New Yorker stories?”

I had turned and was looking up from the second step. “That’s correct, my good fellow—at your service.” I put a finger to my hat brim (a high, round-crown affair I was informed was the epitome of London vogue, though I had not seen a one since stepping from the Chaos, an old packet whose crew made certain she was aptly named).

“Mrs. Haeley is not taking callers but she would not wish me to turn away a man of letters without some refreshment. Won’t you step indoors, sir?”

“Most kind; thank you.” I was still disappointed at not meeting Mrs. Haeley, but I was feeling most fagged and some tea and a taste of biscuit sounded quite glorious. I went in and removed my allegedly fashionable hat (it was chocolate brown velveteen made from the same bolt as my coat lapels, vest and cuffs—I was sparing no expense for my tour of England and the Continent). When Mrs. Haeley’s man closed the door the foyer was plunged into a profound gloom for which my eyes were ill prepared.

“This way, Mr. Wheelwright.”

“Your name, sir?”

“Mrs. Haeley has always called me ‘Thursday.’”

“Like Crusoe’s Friday.”

“Yes—but one better, she says.” The pride in Thursday’s voice was evident. From the foyer we went into a long narrow hall. The irregularity of the walls made me think they were in sad disrepair; then my adjusting eyes discovered the appearance of irregularity was due to the fact the walls were lined with books, stacks and stacks of books, each reaching close to the fourteen-foot ceiling. Actually it was my nose that helped my eyes to interpret clearly: the wonderful smell of old books permeated Mrs. Haeley’s house. There were hundreds of books just in the hall—perhaps thousands!

Thursday paused for a moment and deftly removed a book from the middle of a stack, about eye height, and handed it to me before turning a corner into a room I soon discovered was the parlor. Daylight filtered in through slightly ajar shutters and sheer curtains—enough light to allow me to read the spine of the book: Sketches of the Old New Yorkers. The volume, I was happy to see, was well thumbed.

Thursday took my hat. “It’s very nice—I’ve not seen one quite like it.”

“So I’m beginning to suspect.”

He placed the hat on a coat rack in the corner from which a long woolen scarf and a dark jacket already hung. The room was of good proportions with several couches and armchairs and low seats of the Ottoman style. A large oval table occupied the more or less center of the room. It all gave the impression, however, that though it was a place to welcome guests, none had been welcomed there for some time.

Thursday invited me to sit while he fetched “a nuncheon of tea and crackers.” I took a couch opposite one of the room’s three windows. I smelled the dust that was unsettled by my sitting. There were no pictures on the walls, though there were darkened rectangular spaces where ones had been hanging for years. The motif of the book continued as there were stacks here and there in the parlor, none as prodigious, though, as those that stood in the hall.

My eyes had adapted totally and I perused the volume of Sketches Thursday had handed me. I opened the cover and there was the India-ink portrait of me rendered by young Melissa Blackwood, my neighbor’s daughter during my Albany days (the Blackwoods had moved to Brussels and I planned to visit them on my tour). Little Miss had done a remarkable job on the portrait for such a youthful artist but the likeness was not perfect. Her affection for her “Uncle Jeff” had caused her to widen the space between my eyes and to thin my lips and to tuck in my ears (the ears which had acquired for me the grammar-school nickname of “Chimp”). I realized that the inclusion of my portrait rendered by such a juvenile hand was apropos in so much as the sketches themselves were unpracticed in their way, too—though at the time I considered them the masterpieces of the age. Only two years elapsed between Sketches and Sunnydale, yet they were worlds apart in craft. I trusted that my new work demonstrated a similar advancement in my technique, but I wasn’t so certain: I’d often felt in something of an artistic rut.

The musing reminded me of one of my chief reasons for calling upon Mrs. Haeley. Like the rest of the literary world, I wondered if the authoress was at work on something new. Other than the posthumous volume of her husband’s verse that she had edited and for which had written a touching introduction, nothing had come from her pen, save, I supposed, for letters to family and friends (I held out hope of becoming one of the latter).

Thursday returned with a silver tray and pot, both slightly tarnished, two delicate-looking cups, and a plate of crackers. I wondered then if Mrs. Haeley would be receiving me after all. But Thursday, after pouring my tea and adding a spot of cream at my request, fixed himself a cup and sat in a chair adjacent to my couch. I was not used to such behavior from a domestic, and it occurred to me that maybe Thursday was more than that to Mrs. Haeley. When did Haeley drown? It’d been more than ten years. Sipping at my tea, I tried to examine Thursday’s features more acutely in the parlor’s poor light: his nose was somewhat broad and his lips thick, but his hair, which was brushed straight back, was more Italian in appearance than African; so he seemed of mixed parentage.

“The tea is very good. Thank you for it.” I took a cracker from the plate. It proved stale but was tolerable (and welcome) with the tea. “When might Mrs. Haeley be receiving?”

Thursday lowered the cup from his lips. “It is difficult to say. She does not see many visitors so there is no regularity to it.”

I would imagine journalists were a constant bother to the household. She had been, after all, notorious in her youth, before Haeley’s yachting accident. I recalled the headline in the Post: Celebrated English Poet Dead! / Stephen Hæley’s Yacht Capsizes During Storm. A romantic teenager at the time, I immediately fantasized courting and wooing Haeley’s young widow, of taking his place at her side, a new King with the Queen of English literati. I had not thought of all that for years but perhaps the notion lay on the underside of my mind when I made my plans for the tour.

We sat in silence for a time with our tea and crackers. I was trying to think of something to say when there was a creaking overhead as if someone were walking about upstairs. I looked to Thursday, perhaps to confirm it was the lady herself.

“Old houses and their rheumatic joints.” Thursday smiled, his teeth as white as alabaster in the gloomy parlor.

“Indeed.” Then I had the crazy thought that Mrs. Haeley was not there at all . . . that Thursday was an invader of her home, had murdered the famous (infamous?) authoress and buried her in the yard. There were instances of actresses and opera dancers having overzealous supporters who would not leave them be and who sometimes broke into their rooms—even a case or two wherein the worshipper did harm to their chosen idol because of their twisted devotion. To my knowledge, authoresses did not generate such a following (nor authors for that matter), but there is always a first case. “How is Mrs. Haeley?”

“Oh Mrs. Haeley is fine. I make certain she gets her meals and her rest.” There was more of that pride in Thursday’s voice, though it sounded as if he were referring to a prized equine and not the lady of the house. On the one hand, I had no reason to doubt Thursday’s assertion but on the other my first impression of Mrs. Haeley’s house was not of its being a place of sound health. It seemed like a home from her fiction, a birthplace for a monster. Perhaps her upstairs apartment was all light and cheerfulness, a place she could revel in the sort of vitality Thursday implied. After all, Mrs. Haeley was still a young woman, only some eight years my senior. It was just that she achieved literary fame at such a young age, her novel the buzz of New York City, London, Paris, Brussels, all coinciding with her twentieth birthday. Quite remarkable really.

I finished my tea and crackers, feeling somewhat refreshed, which was good as I would likely have to hike up to Fullham Road on aching feet to find a cab. I had been dropped there, wishing to walk the remaining blocks, to take in the sights and sounds of the OldCity. My head was filled with London stories—of the strolling gentlemen and ladies, of the fancy carriages, of the gay chimneysweeps. This idealized tableau was not the London I found. Perhaps it was somewhere else, in another district. I wondered at the impression of Old New York my book created and whether visitors were taken aback by the genuine thing. I was no doubt giving myself and my pen too much credit.

“Well,” I said, placing my cup upon the tray, “thank you, Thursday, for the refreshment; it worked wonderfully and I feel quite able to return to the hotel.”

“I’m sorry, sir, you did not see Mrs. Haeley, but I will tell her of your visit and present your card.” We both had risen and Thursday was crossing the room to retrieve my hat.

I appreciated Thursday’s politeness but it wasn’t the same thing as insuring me a future audience with Mrs. Haeley.

He handed me my hat. “One thing more, sir, if you would.” He went to a small writing desk in the corner of the parlor and returned with a pen and ink-bottle. I understood, and sat on the edge of the couch to autograph the volume of Sketches. It took me a moment to decide what to write but after turning to the cover page I inscribed: “To Mrs. Haeley and her ‘inmates,’ Best Regards, J. Wheelwright.” The “inmates” remark, of course, was meant as an allusion to her novel, where the childhood Hans mistakes the word intimates for inmates, and it proves ominous foreshadowing. I wondered though if my cleverness—my wanting to illustrate my level of familiarity with Mrs. Haeley’s work—would be grasped . . . and appreciated. It was done now. I used the ink-bottle to hold open the front cover and first pages until my inscription would dry, and I lay the pen besides.

A moment later I was on the stoop listening to Thursday quadruple bolt the door. And the sounds and smells of Wicker’s Lane were instantly upon me. I began making my way—sore feet and all—toward the hotel, resolving to hail the first cab I saw. I felt the old melancholia beginning to stir. I hadn’t a clue what a visit to Mrs. Haeley’s home would yield, but my experience was a disappointment of the first order.

The novel is available from Amazon (print and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (print and Nook), Espresso Book Machine, and a host of global booksellers. See the Twelve Winters Press Fiction Titles page for a complete list.