12 Winters Blog

Accidental Poets: Paul Valéry’s influence on William Gass

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

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


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

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

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

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

For your consideration, from The Tunnel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Interview with 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)

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.

The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”

Posted in March 2013 by Ted Morrissey on March 3, 2013

The following paper — “The Trauma of Alcohol Abuse:  The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s ‘The Pedersen Kid'” — was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, University of Louisville, Feb. 23, as part of the panel “Barthelme & Gass:  Postmodern Fiction,” chaired by Hoang Thi Hue, Hue University, Vietnam.  The other presenters on the panel were Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior, whose paper was “Image and Textual Play:  Adventures in Donald Barthelme’s Alternative and Liminal Narratives”; and Jonathan Imber Shaw, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, whose paper was “Executive Function in Donald Barthelme’s Early Fiction.”

The Trauma of Alcohol Abuse:

The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”

Though written in 1951 and therefore constituting William H. Gass’s first work of fiction, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” did not appear in print until a full decade later in John Gardner’s short-lived journal MSS.  This paper is based specifically on the version of the novella that appeared in Gass’s seminal collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country in 1968.  The title story of that collection and Gass’s long, dense novel The Tunnel (which appeared in 1995) have received the lion’s share of critical attention over the decades, while discussion of “The Pedersen Kid” has been meager to put it mildly.  Some writers have noted the connection between Gass’s well-known miserable childhood—made miserable by Gass’s alcoholic mother and hateful bigot of a father—and the fact that the novella’s first-person protagonist is leading his own miserable life thanks mainly to his abusive and alcoholic “Pa”; but they have failed to go much beyond that obvious surface connection.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest that understanding the trauma of alcohol abuse within the context of a family is key to more fully understanding the enigmatic novella, whose final section in particular has left both casual readers and critics scratching their heads in puzzlement for more than forty years.  In fact, Arthur M. Saltzman said that attempting to gain a clear view of the plot is “self-defeating” because “Gass steers us into cul-de-sacs, lets loose ends dangle, and plunges without warning into subjective distortions,” thereby leaving the two most suspenseful narrative questions unresolved and unrelieved (60).

Set in mid twentieth-century North Dakota, at the conclusion of a terrible blizzard, the novella begins with the farmhand Big Hans finding the boy from the neighboring Pedersen farm in the yard unconscious and nearly frozen to death as he apparently walked there through the previous night’s storm.  Later, partially revived, the boy tells Big Hans (allegedly) that an intruder broke into their house and forced his parents into the frigid root-cellar, but somehow the boy escaped and managed to make it on foot all the way to the Segren farm in spite of the blizzard.  Most of the novella centers around the three males of the Segren family—Big Hans, Pa Segren, and the young narrator (12 or 13?), Jorge Segren—making their way to the Pedersen farm through the frozen landscape to see if the boy’s story is true, though the act is more about Pa’s punishing Hans and Jorge than trying to do a neighbor a good turn; in fact, Pa seems to hate Pedersen even more than he hates everyone else around him, referring to him as a “cock,” a “bastard,” a “fool,” and a “shit”; and blaming Pedersen for every bad turn of events, including the previous summer’s grasshopper infestation and even the previous day’s blizzard.

At the root of Pa’s punishment, in addition to his natural mean-spiritedness, is the fact that some of his precious whiskey was found in what he thought was a secure hiding place and used to resuscitate the Pedersen kid without Pa’s permission.  That seems to be the reason he keeps driving them forward, toward the Pedersen farm and its possible danger, in a horse-drawn wagon that can barely make it through the all but impassable roads and fields.  The motivation is freshened part way there, when they are all so miserable with cold they are thinking of turning back, Pa’s whiskey bottle falls out of the wagon and is eventually broken by a wagon wheel.  Even though he had nothing to do with breaking the bottle, Hans apologizes but to no avail:  “Pa squinted at the snow [. . . and] drove” (44).

There have been several theories put forward to explain the novella, which at first suggests a distinct and straightforward narrative arc—namely answering the questions “Did an intruder break into the Pedersen house?” and “Are the Pedersens alive or dead?”—but which disintegrates by the end into ambiguity and downright confusion.  Saltzman says it well:  “Relentlessly convoluted in design, as though the all-compassing blizzard in the story were rendering all perception hesitant and indistinct, ‘The Pedersen Kid’ is replete with allegorical options for the discerning reader and is equally accommodating to Freudian, Christian, and heraldic archetypes” (59).  Also well put, Patricia Kane writes, “One can locate several points in the story at which Jorge may have hallucinated the rest.  Such alternatives provide semi-rational explanations, but the story remains enigmatic and fails to lend itself to neat exegesis” (90).

In a moment, I will put forward a theory based on the findings of professionals who work with families coping with the trauma of alcohol abuse—families which must have resembled Gass’s own growing up—and it is a theory that can account for some of the novella’s eccentricities, especially its seemingly unresolved resolution.  First, though, it is worth looking at how the Segren family exhibits many of the characteristics of families traumatized by alcohol abuse, which adds credence to my use of the substance-abuse theory to examine this work of literary art.  Even though alcohol abuse no doubt began almost as soon as the process of fermentation was discovered, culture by culture, seeing it as a “family disease” has been a common practice for only the last twenty to thirty years.  In 1985, Stephanie Brown defined alcohol addiction as a family disease “with all family members suffering the consequences of one member’s alcoholism and all seen to play a role in maintaining the destructive interactional patterns that result from alcoholism” (qtd. in Brooks and Rice 92).  Indeed, these destructive interactional patterns could easily account for Gass’s “miserable and damaging” childhood, as characterized by H. L. Hix, who quotes Gass as saying, “For a long time I was simply emotionally unable to handle my parents’ illnesses. [. . .] I just fled. [. . .] All along one principal motivation behind my writing has been to be other than the person I am.  To cancel the consequences of the past” (2).

G. Harold Smith and his colleagues discuss various types of family structures that form around alcoholic parents, and we can see aspects of these structures in the Segren family.  The “enmeshed family,” for example, seems especially applicable as it is extremely isolated and wants little to do with outsiders:   “Within these highly self-involved families, children’s needs may be ignored because the family’s attention is focused on the parent who is abusing substances” (Smith et al. 47).  The Segren family, of course, is isolated by the very fact they live on a farm in North Dakota, but Pa’s attitude toward the Pedersens suggests that the two families have been kept apart, thus exacerbating the geography’s tendency toward isolation.  In spite of the tragic nature of the occurrence (the Pedersen kid nearly died in the blizzard and may die yet), the mother, Hed Segren, seems excited at the possibility of having company, wanting to put out coffee and fresh biscuits with elderberry jelly for Mr. Pedersen and his eldest son when they come to collect the kid.  Pa, of course, ridicules her for her intentions.

However, an even more tragic trait of the enmeshed family is the alcoholic’s tendency toward violence.  Smith and his colleagues write, “Often that parent’s behavior has to be monitored carefully to avoid negative consequences.  For example, much family effort may be expended to avoid provoking a violent reaction from a parent who is intoxicated” (47).  Clearly, all three members of Pa Segren’s household are afraid of him, and several instances of his cruel and violent nature are recounted at various points in the story, including references to his emptying a chamber-pot filled with diarrhea on Hans’s head and his destroying Jorge’s favorite picture book and dropping the pieces of torn paper in the privy.  In our very first view of Pa in the novella, Jorge is struck in the neck for waking his father to inquire where there is some whiskey with which to try to revive the nearly frozen Pedersen kid.  And poor Hed Segren is as skittish and defeated as an abused wife can be; she may even have turned to drinking, too, to cope with her miserable existence.

Because of the enmeshed family’s preoccupation with the alcohol abuser, children are often neglected and fall prey to all sorts of deprivations and depravations.  Smith and his colleagues report that sexual abuse is “common” in households where substances are abused by one or both parents (48).  In “The Pedersen Kid,” sexual abuse is not obvious, but Big Hans’s relationship with Jorge is questionable and even highly suspicious at times, showing him pornographic magazines, telling him stories about Japanese prostitutes, and even measuring the length of Jorge’s penis.  As Ripatrazone puts it, “Jorge stops short of claiming physical abuse, but the actions are grossly inappropriate, perhaps the reason why ‘pa took a dislike to Hans.’”  However, Gass may imply that Jorge—our omnisciently very limited, first-person narrator—is repressing more than he is telling as he seems fixated on penises:  the Pedersen kid’s, his father’s, his own; and he imagines the intruder’s assault on his mother as more of a sexual assault as the stranger “wav[es his gun barrel] up and down in front of ma’s face real slow and quiet” (19).

There isn’t time to go further into detail here, but there are numerous other elements of the novella that seem to reflect the experiences of someone growing up in a household traumatically affected by alcohol abuse.  For example, the creation of the narrative about the Pedersen family’s intruder, which is pulled together from mere scraps of details, may suggest a family’s inclination to invent an alternate narrative about their traumatized existence to fit into their community more easily.  Also, there are several spaces brought up in the story that have a duality about them, usually coldness versus warmth, which may suggest the duality of an alcoholic’s home that is supposed to provide familial warmth and comfort (and may even do so at times), but that also breeds hostility, mistrust, and often emotional and physical abuse.

Throughout my paper I refer to the trauma of alcohol abuse, but trauma is a subjective term.  At what point, in other words, does a really terrible situation become a genuinely traumatic one?  From the Greek for “wound,” trauma originally meant a physical wound.  Over time, and especially with the horrors of the First World War, our sense of trauma was extended to include a wound of the mind or psyche as well.  Even more recently, the definition of trauma has been expanded to include being subjected to an oppressive and reoccurring situation, like being married to an abusive or potentially abusive spouse, who may have never actually become violent, but whose constant threat of violence creates a traumatic environment.  Certainly being a member of a family with a parent who abuses alcohol or other substances constitutes a traumatic situation, and in “The Pedersen Kid” William Gass gives us one of the most poignantly accurate extended metaphors of trauma in American literature:

It’s more than a make-up; it’s more than a dream.  It’s like something you see once and it hits you so hard you never forget it even if you want to; lies, dreams, pass—this has you; it’s like something that sticks to you like burrs, burrs you try to brush off while you’re doing something else, but they never brush off, they just roll a little, and the first thing you know you ain’t doing what you set out to, you’re just trying to get them burrs off.         I know.      I got things stuck to me like that.  Everybody has.        Pretty soon you get tired of trying to pick them off. (17)

This passage illustrates the intrusive and haunting nature of trauma, its tenaciousness, its ability to disrupt your concentration, and ultimately your life—and the fact that from Hans’s perspective, everyone is traumatized, which makes sense since the novella implies that Hans is a veteran of the First World War. Moreover, this passage suggests that Pa’s drinking has, indeed, traumatized the Segren family, and perhaps especially Jorge, who has grown up with his father’s capricious personality due to the whiskey that is ubiquitous in the novella, from nearly the first page to the last.

Now for that substance-abuse theory that seems to help us to understand “The Pedersen Kid,” especially the ambiguities of its final section.

In 1979, Sharon Wegscheider identified four roles that are often played by children of alcoholics, and it seems that Jorge has assumed each of these roles at some point in “The Pedersen Kid,” with the final one casting light on the novella’s enigmatic ending.  The roles identified by Wegscheider are family hero, scapegoat, lost child, and mascot (Ackerman 52-53).  The family hero “displays behaviors that are extremely mature” (53), and this role is manifested when Jorge is given the responsibility of making sure the Pedersen kid is still alive before they begin their journey to the Pedersen farm, and especially when Jorge is given Hans’s .45-caliber pistol to load, which he then carries in his belt, even though “the gun felt like a chunk of ice against [his] belly and the barrel dug” (34).  Because of the adventure they are about to embark on, Jorge thinks, “It was like I was setting out to do something special and big—like a knight setting out—worth remembering” (32-33).  Later, Jorge wants a drink of Pa’s whiskey to warm him, claiming that he has drunk whiskey before; but the request only provokes his father’s sarcasm:  “Ain’t you growed up—a man—since yesterday!” (38).  In a truly heroic vein, Jorge dreams about confronting the Pedersens’ intruder, wrestling him to the ground and “beating the stocking cap off his head with the barrel of the gun” (33).

An only child, like Gass, Jorge also embodies the family scapegoat, who is often the target of “frustrations and confusions” and as a result may “outwardly [display …] negative behavior” (Ackerman 53).  Jorge is often ridiculed by both Pa and Hans; examples are copious in the novella.  In the scene mentioned earlier, when the whiskey bottle falls from the wagon, Jorge is forced to search for the bottle in the snow in spite of his being painfully cold already.  Frustrated at Jorge’s not finding the bottle, Pa calls him a “smart-talking snot” and threatens to hold him down under the snow until he drowns (37).  Meanwhile, Jorge’s negative behaviors are varied, and perhaps his most negative behavior comes in the hallucinatory final section and may or may not happen.  An example in the beginning of the story, though, is Jorge’s resentment of the attention being paid to the half-frozen Pedersen kid, especially by his mother.  Jorge imagines the boy is actually dead and not just near death, consequently dropping him so that his head hits the kitchen table hard (10).  In the final section of the novella, however, it seems that Pa is shot dead just outside the Pedersen house.  It may have been the intruder who shot Pa, or it may have been Jorge paying Pa back for years of cruelty and abuse.  Patricia Kane seems to learn toward the latter interpretation, thinking that Jorge has become mad by the end of the novella (90); while Nick Ripatrzone, writing in The Quarterly Conversation, believes that Jorge only wishes his father dead and does not actually shoot him.

Jorge also resembles the lost child, who suffers “the most role inconsistency” in the family of an alcoholic (Ackerman 53).  At times, Jorge tries to shield his mother from Pa’s abuse, but she also scolds Hans for “pester[ing] the boy” (19)—so when it comes to his mother, he is both a mature protector and a child who needs protection.  Even still, he imagines his mother coming to harm, and her fantasized death completes his sense of freedom from his oppressively abusive family.  But it is via metaphor that we can see Jorge’s lost child status most clearly.  In the beginning of the novella, it is, quite literally, the Pedersen kid who is lost.  In fact, the Segrens entertain the idea that the kid merely wandered off in the blizzard of his own accord, and the Pedersens will come looking for him now that the blizzard has stopped.  By the end, however, Jorge, now occupying the Pedersen farmhouse by himself, believes that he and the Pedersen kid have “been exchanged, and we were both in our new lands” (73).  And by the very end, Jorge and the Pedersen kid are more than exchanged; it is as if they are living parallel lives in their new lands.  Thus, Jorge has in essence become the novella’s original lost boy.

It is also via this exchange that we can see Jorge as the mascot, the child who “may be overly protected from the family problems” (Ackerman 53).  After Pa has been killed, Jorge takes refuge in the Pedersens’ root-cellar, waiting to be killed himself by the intruder (assuming the version of the story that there is an intruder who has killed the Pedersens and now Pa too).  After what seems a long time, the intruder stops waiting for Jorge and leaves the Pedersen house with a slam of the front door (66).  So, from this perspective, both Jorge and the Pedersen kid have been spared by the intruder, and in fact Jorge has been protected in a sense because the source of his misery—his alcoholic father—has been permanently removed from his life.

Throughout the novella, the intruder is a vague but ominous figure, with only a handful of descriptors attached to him which are repeated again and again (the black stocking cap, the yellow gloves, the green mackinaw, the gun), just as the whiskey is an object known chiefly by its fecal color, its omnipresence, and its desirability as all the Segrens (even the mother) seem to thirst for it, or at least for the power it lends tyrannical Pa.  Thus in my reading of “The Pedersen Kid” the true intruder, the true menace is the whiskey-induced alcoholism.  We note that it is en route to the Pedersen farm that whiskey, as an object, disappears from the narrative as Horse Simon shatters Pa’s bottle, which had fallen from the wagon, into the snow.  Its destruction propels Pa toward his own demise, empowering or at least enabling Jorge to overcome him in the end.  The intruder (whiskey) and his minion (Pa) destroyed, Jorge is overjoyed at the end of the novella; he is “burning up, inside and out with joy,” and joy is, in fact, the novella’s final word (79).

In addition to Wegscheider’s four roles, Norman Garmezy also coined the category of invulnerables:  “These are the children, that despite all the family problems, have not only survived, but also have grown into healthy adults” (Ackerman 53).  Garmezy estimated that about ten percent of children in homes with an alcoholic parent prove to be invulnerable.  It seems that perhaps Gass himself fits this category in that he managed to take his miserable childhood and create from it an illustrious writing and teaching career.  What will almost certainly be his last work of fiction and perhaps his last book-length publication, period, the novel Middle C, will be released March 12, and no doubt it will draw on many of the same images and themes his creative genius has tapped into for more than half a century.  I preordered the book several months ago and rest assured that I will be watching my mailbox hawkishly come the 12th.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Robert J.  Children of Alcoholics:  A Guidebook for Educators, Therapists, and Parents.  2nd ed.  Holmes Beach, FL:  Learning Publications, 1983.  Print.

Brooks, Carolyn Seval, and Kathleen Fitzgerald Rice.  Families in Recovery:  Coming Full Circle.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul H. Brookes, 1997.  Print.

Gass, William H.  “The Pedersen Kid.”  1961.  In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories.  Boston, MA:  Nonpareil, 1981.  Print.  1-79.

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

Kane, Patricia.  “The Sun Burned on the Snow:  Gass’s ‘The Pedersen Kid.’”  Critique 14.2 (1972):  89-96.  Print.

Ripatrazone, Nick.  “Let Me Make a Snowman:  John Gardner, William Gass, and ‘The Pedersen Kid.’”  The Quarterly Conversation.  Web.  15 Feb. 2013.

Saltzman, Arthur M.  The Fiction of William Gass:  The Consolation of Language.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois UP, 1986.  Print.

Smith, G. Harold, et al.  Children, Families, and Substance Abuse:  Challenges for Changing Educational and Social Outcomes.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul. H. Brookes, 1995.  Print.

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Thoughts on plot for Pharmacy-VLA workshoppers, and more

Posted in June 2012 by Ted Morrissey on June 10, 2012

Throughout this summer my writing compadres — Lisa Higgs, Meagan Cass and Tracy Zeman — and I are leading a series of workshops at The Pharmacy in Springfield, Illinois, co-sponsored by the Vachel Lindsay Association (of which Lisa, Tracy and I are board members, with Lisa being president of the VLA).  We’re having six sessions all together:  introductory and concluding sessions, and alternating in between sessions devoted to fiction and poetry.  Just this past Tuesday, June 5, Meagan and I led the session focused specifically on characterization and plot.  Not surprisingly, two hours was barely enough time to express anything meaningful about characterization, and plot received very short shrift indeed.

So it occurred to me that I should use the private discussion board set up for the workshop at Google Groups to share a few thoughts about plot — or risk being charged with false advertising by the intrepid workshoppers — but I also recognized that it’s been some time since I’ve posted to this blog (due to a plethora of other events and obligations); so I’ve decided to kill the proverbial pair of birds with a single stone.  I’ll jot down some thoughts on plot (followed by a few updates, etc.), and I’ll post this entry’s link to the discussion board.

Here goes, then.  Having taught creative writing for a number of years, and having been a part of innumerable workshopping sessions, either as participant or leader, it seems to me that the most common plot-related problems that inexperienced writers of fiction (and, I suppose, creative nonfiction) encounter have to do with where to begin a story and where to end it.  Certainly there are problems related to conflict and resolution, especially when it comes to plausibility, but those tend to have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis; that is, it’s difficult to offer any general sort of advice regarding how plausibly one has worked out a narrative’s plot and resolution.

When it comes to starting a story, most novice writers begin their tale too far away from the conflict, in terms of narrative temporal distance.  For example, the conflict in a story may be that the protagonist’s prom date and presumed girlfriend, Julia, dumps him (Bobby, short for Robert because no modern American male name sounds much like Romeo) the morning of the big dance (tux rented, limousine scheduled, dinner reservations booked, and beautiful courtship, engagement, marriage, family and retirement in their golden years with Julia obsessively fantasized).  However, the novice writer begins by telling us about Bobby noticing tanned and golden-haired Julia in study hall three months earlier; then we get several pages of (what we would term) his stalking her at cheerleading practice, at the pizza place where she’s a part-time hostess, at church youth group (Bobby miraculously has been born again), etc., etc.

Finally, on page 10 of the manuscript (printed, incidentally, in 9-pt. Calibri with 1.5 line spacing), Julia dumps Bobby via an emotionless text message, coupled with an inexplicable and unceremonious unfriending on Facebook.  In such a story, only the most dedicated of instructors and fellow workshoppers would ever make it to page 10 to experience Bobby’s heartshattering disappointment and profound confusion (perhaps summed up via a scribbled note in the margin of the writer’s manuscript by another workshop participant: “wtf?”).  wtf indeed — heck, I just made all this stuff up, and I’m reasonably curious as to what happened with Julia.

With such a story, my most basic advice to the student would be to begin with the text and the unfriending — the rest of it (who Bobby and Julia are, how they met, how Bobby was so in love that he followed her around, just two steps behind an order of restraint, how Bobby spent his life savings — earned by cleaning the kennels at the local veterinarian clinic [I just made that up too] — on his tuxedo, the limo, the flowers, and so on) should be parceled out to us after this teenage boy’s heart is shattered in the first few lines of the narrative:

Bobby McFarland was overjoyed when his phone alerted him to Julia’s text — she must’ve been as anxious and happy as he, sending him a message before six a.m. the day of Prom, the day he’d been looking forward to since he’d summoned the nerve to ask Julia Gunderson, the prettiest girl on the Wakefield High School varsity cheerleading squad, the girl, he could barely admit to himself, he intended one day to marry, and, impossibly, she had said “yes,” nearly bursting his 17-year-old’s heart with utter happiness. . . .  Still lying in bed, smiling at the thought of his beautiful girl, he pressed the icon to read her text:  i cant go with u 2 prom. sorry 

Even when we think that we’ve begun as close to the conflict as humanly possible, there’s an old workshopping experiment (perhaps invented by Aristotle — I’m kidding) that newer writers are encouraged to perform, and that’s to look at the third paragraph and see if perhaps the story would be stronger if it began there, with the third paragraph; in other words, the writer should try to determine if the first two paragraphs are superfluous fluff best relegated to the cutting-room floor.  Also part of this old experiment is to look at the next-to-last paragraph of the story and see if perhaps it should be the final paragraph; that is, the writer should try to figure out if the current draft’s final paragraph actually weakens the emotional impact of the story.

The reason why the second part of this workshopping experiment is often successful is due to the key word in the sentence above: emotional.  What often happens when we first start writing fiction (and, likely, creative nonfiction) is that we feel duty-bound to conclude the narrative, just as we are taught in school to conclude an essay or report or analysis, and in the act of concluding we explain to the reader what she or he is supposed to have gotten out of the story.  Commonly we knock the reader over the head with the theme we believe we’ve been developing throughout.  When it comes to theme, my best advice — and it took me years to believe in this advice myself — is that theme is the reader’s prerogative.  The writer’s job is to write a compelling story; the reader’s job, should she or he be so inclined, is to judge the story’s theme.

Many years ago I reached a beautiful place as a creative writer:  I don’t care at all about what my writing means.  And the moment I reached that place, the quality of  my writing improved exponentially — and, frankly, it became a lot more fun.  Therefore, the reason the workshopping experiment about the next-to-last paragraph works is because very often the action of the story ends there, and, subsequently, the emotional pitch of the story is wrapped up in the protagonist’s final action (that we’re allowed to see):  Bobby’s picking up Julia to drive her to an LGBT conference, for example (your brain’s already filling in the narrative in between, isn’t it? — brains are wonderful things that way).

To clarify a point, however:  Just because I don’t worry about meaning and therefore try to achieve a particular one, it doesn’t mean that my work is without meaning.  As the master, William H. Gass, said in a 1978 interview:  “You hope that the amount of meaning that you can pack into the book will always be more than you are capable of consciously understanding. . . . You have to trick your medium into doing far better than you, as a conscious and clearheaded person, might manage” (Conversations p. 47).  What is more, in his classic and widely anthologized paper on the literary merit of the monsters in Beowulf, “The Monsters and the Critics,” first presented in 1936, J. R. R. Tolkien said that if the anonymous poet’s theme had been “explicit to him, his poem would certainly have been the worse.”  In sum, then, writers shouldn’t be too concerned or, even, concerned at all about their own theme(s) because thinking about meaning is counterproductive to creating a meaningful piece of work.

That’s it; had we had more time last Tuesday I would’ve said some things like I just said here.

The heading of this entry claims there will be “more,” so let there be.

I have a couple of short stories floating around out there that will be a bit challenging to place — one is highly, highly experimental (“Season of Reaping”), and the other is very, very long (“Figures in Blue”).  Meanwhile, my story “Crowsong for the Stricken” came out in the Noctua Review this past month.  Incidentally, Duotrope’s Digest also recently posted an interview with the journal’s editor-in-chief, Meg Cowen.  Speaking of “Crowsong,” I’ll be reading it this weekend, June 16, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, at Wirepalooza, a semi-private festival put on by Ft. Wayne Metals, where my brother Mike works (his band, Plastic Deformation, will be performing too).  In addition, my story “Beside Running Waters” is due out soon in Constellations.

The manuscript for my novella and story collection, Weeping with an Ancient God, is finished and in the hands of my publisher, Punkin House.  More about this, I’m sure, at a later date.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Pathfinding

Campbell, Smith and Stein — not a law firm but a great National Poetry Month

Posted in April 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 22, 2012

April, as everyone knows, is National Poetry Month, and here in Springfield, Illinois, we’ve had a great one.  Among the highlights have been the visits of Bonnie Jo Campbell, Marc Kelly Smith and Kevin Stein. At the risk of doing each an injustice, I’ll mention here their readings in summary. First, though, I’ll point out that while it’s National Poetry Month, I prefer to think of poetry as Aristotle did: as writing that is imaginative and creative in nature — therefore, fiction and creative nonfiction are forms of poetry as well.

It makes perfect sense then that Bonnie Jo Campbell, known mainly as a novelist and short-story writer, kicked off a terrific string of events by delivering the John Holtz Memorial Lecture April 20 at Brookens Auditorium on the campus of University of Illinois, Springfield. (For you purists out there, she did read a couple of her poems as well). In addition to attending her reading and lecture, I had the good fortune of being able to sit in on her craft talk with creative writing students at the university, and also to be among those who accompanied her to dinner before her event. Even though she did deliver the memorial lecture, calling it a lecture is a bit misleading because Campbell was so down-to-earth with her audience, the word lecture isn’t right in terms of mood as it implies a certain amount of stuffiness, and she was anything but stuffy (in fact, she abandoned the podium on the stage to literally come down to the floor of the auditorium so that she could speak more intimately with the audience). Her plain cotton shirt, faded blue jeans and well-worn boots added to her folksy and completely genuine charm. However, if one thinks of lecture as meaning a vehicle by which to deliver insightful wisdom, then lecture is precisely the right word.

In addition to the poetry, Campbell read from her short fiction and from her latest work, the novel Once Upon a River. In between readings, she would discuss various topics, including her writing process (which she describes as hard work), and the joys and perils of publishing. Interestingly, she read the manuscript version of her story “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem” which is notably different from the version included in her collection American Salvage — not because she prefers it, but because she likes the idea that writers, like visual and musical artists, can have multiple perspectives on a single subject.

With Bonnie Jo Campbell after her reading and lecture at Brookens Auditorium, UIS, April 13. Photo by Shannon Pepita O'Brien.

I’ve been to a lot of readings, but Bonnie Jo Campbell’s was truly one of the most engaging that I’ve had the pleasure of attending. My thanks to the university in general (notably the English Department and Brookens Library) but especially to my friend and colleague Meagan Cass, who did the extensive leg work and made sure the copious i’s and t’s were dotted and crossed to bring this extraordinary writer to Springfield.

A week later, on April 20, The Pharmacy hosted an event with the Father of Slam Poetry, Marc Kelly Smith, who had the dual purpose of performing (and I mean performing) his own poetry and also educating the audience as to the origin and tenets of slam poetry (I’ll be the first to admit, I needed an education). Smith was, in a word, fabulous — even though I was the first “victim” he took from his seat for some spontaneous (and totally unanticipated) audience participation, for which I was prevailed upon, among other things, to spit on the floor and imitate a train whistle.

Smith emphasized that slam poetry is rooted in bringing poetry from some sacred altar, where only the well-educated are allowed to espouse it, and return it to the people, whose feelings, ideas and experiences are just as worthy as the tweed-wearing academic Poet’s, and whose appreciation of language is just as great. Smith conducted a competitive slam so that neophytes, like yours truly, could see how one operates — although he underscored that the efforts of the inexperienced newcomer are just as valid as the veteran poet’s, because slam poetry is about inclusion, as opposed to the university brand of poetry that tends to be exclusionary.

Many thanks to the fine folks at The Pharmacy who made Smith’s visit possible, especially Adam Nicholson, who among other things took the lead in advertising the event, and his efforts paid off as The Pharmacy was packed to its plaster-flaking rafters.

Doing some unexpected audience participation with slam poet Marc Kelly Smith at The Pharmacy April 20. Photo by Shannon Pepita O'Brien.

Last but certainly not least was Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein’s reading and presentation at the Vachel Lindsay Home yesterday, April 21. I’ve had the pleasure of attending Stein’s readings on two other occasions so I knew the enjoyment that was in store. As poet laureate, a post he’s held since 2003 (following Gwendolyn Brooks), Stein, like Smith, has been focused on making poetry accessible to everyone, especially children and teenagers. Stein discussed his efforts to encourage students to write poetry, via his Illinois Youth Poetry project, telling stories about some of his experiences working in schools and also reading some of the poems written by young poets. Speaking from the parlor of the historic Vachel Lindsay Home, Stein also read some of his own poetry and from his most recently published essay collection, Poetry’s Afterlife.

Though not a “tech guru” himself, Stein said, he’s been focused on using technology to promote poetry since he first became laureate, encouraged in large part by his own children, who knew that their peers would more readily respond to audio and video of poetry being recited and performed, more so than plain words on a page or computer screen. They apparently were right because data from his website show that visitors are much more likely to watch and listen to poetry than to simply read it as print text; and, moreover, the video and audio with the most hits are also the texts of poems that have the highest number of hits, suggesting that visitors are more likely to read poetry if they’ve first seen or heard the piece recited.

As with the other writer/poet visitations, bringing Kevin Stein to the Vachel Lindsay Home was a group effort, but special thanks go to Home manager Jennie Battles as well as my friend and colleague Lisa Higgs, president of the Vachel Lindsay Association.

Just a personal update (though not that personal): I’m starting to put together some readings and talks for the summer of my own, and so far only have one date on the calendar, June 16 in Ft. Wayne, Indiana (details to follow). My publisher, Punkin House, is planning to have my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God out by the end of summer. I’ve just finished writing a long short story, “Figures in Blue,” and am starting to send it out to meet people; meanwhile, my stories “Crowsong for the Stricken” and “Beside Running Waters” are due out this spring in the Noctua Review (see the cover) and Constellations, respectively. Also, I’ve accepted a contract with Edwin Mellen Press to write a scholarly monograph  (very tentatively working-titled “The Beowulf-poet and His Real Monsters”) on the poem Beowulf, the manuscript of which I hope to have completed by September 1.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly (certainly most fun-ly), my friends Meagan Cass, Lisa Higgs, Tracy Zeman and I are working with Andrew Woolbright and Adam Nicholson to offer a series of fiction and poetry workshops this summer at The Pharmacy, co-sponsored by the Vachel Lindsay Association — much, much more information to follow.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Pathfinding

Notes from the Louisville Conference and AWP 2012

Posted in March 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 18, 2012

The transition of February into March was exceedingly busy for me as I attended both the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (Feb. 23-25) and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Chicago (Feb. 29-March 3). I’ve been a regular attendee and presenter at Louisville the past eight years, but I’ve only attended AWP twice, the other time being Chicago 2004. Hecticness aside, the conferences were well worth the effort, and for this post I’ll record some thoughts and observations about each.

This year’s installment was the fortieth Louisville Conference, and it was typically excellent. I presented a paper on William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel and how the fallout-shelter phenomenon of the 1950s and ’60s may have affected its writing. The novel, which won the American Book Award in 1996, took Gass nearly thirty years to write, and he published 19 excerpts of The Tunnel in literary journals, commercial periodicals, and as small-press monographs between 1969 and 1988. Given my paper’s focus and the necessary brevity of the presentation, I concentrated my analysis on the two earliest published excerpts: “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in New American Review (1969) and “Why Windows Are Important to Me” in TriQuarterly (1971). My paper was essentially a companion to a paper I presented at Louisville in 2010 on Gass and nuclear annihilation in general, focusing somewhat on The Tunnel but mainly on his classic short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968).

My paper was part of a prearranged panel for The PsyArt Foundation, organized by Andrew Gordon. My scholarly interests have been associated with literary trauma theory; that is, looking at texts, especially postmodern texts, that may have been significantly influenced by the writer’s traumatized psyche. And I’ve been especially interested in cultural trauma, whereby an entire nation or some other large group of people has experienced the zeitgeist of trauma (e.g., fear of nuclear annihilation). When my interests in literary trauma theory began around 2008, it was not an area that a lot of scholars were exploring; however, the theoretical paradigm seems to be catching on as I was surprised to find that at the 2012 Louisville Conference there were numerous papers involving trauma-theory readings of texts. In fact, in the online program I found 23 panels and papers that contained the word “trauma.” Unfortunately, the Conference doesn’t seem to archive its past programs online, and this link will likely go dead in the near future.

The overall quality of the presentations at Louisville is always excellent, but here are some papers or readings that I found to be especially engaging: The panel on “Modernism & Experimentation” was very thought provoking with presenters Lindsay Welsch (on Forster’s A Passage to India), Elizabeth J. Wellman (on Djuna Barnes), and — especially — Christopher McVey’s paper “Book of Lief, A Comedy of Letters: Finnegans Wake, Historiography, and the Heliotrope.” I also learned a lot from Carolyn A. Durham’s paper “The Spy Novel Parodied: Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech.” In a panel that I chaired, there were two exceptional papers on films: Patrick Herald’s “I Have Lost Something: Fantasy in American Beauty” and William Welty’s “‘That Rug Really Tied the Room Together’: Why The Dude Is a Lacanian.”

In the creative panel that I was part of, reading “Crowsong for the Stricken,” I had the pleasure of hearing Don Peteroy’s entertaining short story “Too Much Anthropology” and the spellbinding poetry of Cecilia Woloch.

In mentioning these few, I have omitted countless excellent others, but in the interest of everyone’s attention span I’ll move on to some words about AWP 2012. I’d never attended a conference that had literally sold out, but AWP in Chicago did, as there were more than 9,000 participants this year. Besides presentations and readings, one of the most notable aspects of the annual conference is its bookfair, where hundreds of presses (especially small and university presses) and literary journals display the fruits of their labors (of love). I attended AWP as part of the “Q crew” (as I call us), the editors, readers and interns of Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program, housed on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield, Illinois. Frankly, I enjoy hanging out at the Quiddity table and telling passers-by about the journal and radio program, but I also attended some very interesting panels and readings.

Among the interesting panels that I attended were “The Fiction Chapbook — A Sleeper Form Wakes Up” (by Nicole Louise Reid, Eric Lorberer, Diane Goettel, Keven Sampsell, and Abigail Beckel) about how the chapbook, known mostly as a format for poetry, could become an excellent way to get short fiction into the hands of readers; and “The Science of Stories: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Making Narratives” (by Jack Wang, Andrew Elfenbein, Tim Horvath, Austin Bennett, and Livia Blackburne) about how and why readers respond to various aspects of storytelling.

I also attended an excellent reception/reading hosted by Ruminate Magazine, Rock & Sling, and WordFarm. Then following that reception was one of the historic moments of the conference, a reading by U.K. and U.S. Poets Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine — I mean, how often does one get to hear a national poet laureate, period, leave be the current U.K. and U.S. poets on the same stage?

My double conference extravaganza was a bit taxing, but both were well worth the time and effort. Just a couple of other quick notes regarding my own writing and publishing: My story “Primitive Scent” appeared in the fall 2011 issue of the Tulane Review. Also, on the day I was to read “Crowsong for the Stricken” at the Louisville Conference I received an email that it will appear in this spring’s edition of Noctua Review. Moreover, just before leaving for AWP I had an email that Constellations will be publishing “Beside Running Waters” in its forthcoming issue. And finally, I’ve heard that the issue of Pisgah Review with my story “The Composure of Death” is out. (The Pisgah website is a bit behind and still featuring the winter 2010 issue.)

The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House, plans to bring out my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God. Originally it was slated for spring 2012, but there’s been no movement on it, so that time frame is probably not very realistic. If interested (or even if not), see my website tedmorrissey.com for updates regarding its publication and other news.