Kelly A. Smith Interviews Allan Gurganus, for the Spring 2010 Iowa Writers’ Workshop Alumni Newsletter
Q: Encountering art seems something sacred to you. All of us who have been part of the Workshop community are naturally sensitive to beauty in its various forms. But, after reading your work and getting to know you this semester, it seems that an encounter with art is almost holy.
A: I don’t blame a conscious God for this unconscionable scrambled-egg world of ours. I can’t imagine any deity caring how this happy interview proceeds. Therefore, a grown man, I must find values and ballast elsewhere. Humor, ever present as my chubby sidekick, is a great ally. Memory has stayed my ideal twin sister, if one less and less around when I most need her. And Beauty is everywhere at once. Undergrads barely in their shorts today play Frisbee on all Iowa City lawn. Exquisite torture. Beauty gives itself so readily if only we’re un-depressed enough to accept its latest offer.
Writing fiction is a strange combination of being a talent scout, unaffiliated priest, an able-bodied janitor. We’re professional eavesdroppers, on-call celebrants, all-purpose salvage crews. When it’s practiced daily, such attention-paying comes a close second to believing in God. (Plus you’re spared accepting the appalling corruptions of the Church. Even church-members are starting to notice!). Fiction’s near enough a show, a science and a miracle to serve as one’s single organizing principle.
I’ve urged my Workshop students to install something funny and something beautiful on every page of their work. Readers will likely stay longer. (The trick, of course, is deciding what in the world you find most amusing and gorgeous). As smart and serious public citizens, we must fight to allow ourselves the consolations of beauty. Puritans, we’ve never quite trusted it. I make no distinction between a poetic line and a…prosaic one. That’s a matter of margin-settings and capitalizing first words. It should all rock and sing and surprise.
(If a novelist mentions the name of a color in her first or second paragraph, the chance of a reader’s staying put is instantly enlarged. Not just ‘red’, (a particular favorite) but `wet-slate gray’, or `pea-soup green’. Some trance occurs when your reader helps concoct a very specific color from the black-and-white page. The reader has just becomes your artist’s assistant, your Dr. Watson collaborator.)
We’re all fools for beauty. Apart from the joy of being in love, the pleasures of community, the delight of living around children and the right to eat three times daily — it’s the biggest privilege. Despite our constantly poisoning this planet, who can deny it’s stayed stubbornly beautiful. Fiction begins with the little we can agree upon. Natural beauty offers such a starting place.
It’s also consolation for some of the loss that you’ve written about—how coming of age as an artist involves turning away from inherited family ways.
Mom and Dad made sure my three brothers and I had shoes roughly the right size. They bought us encyclopedias; they churched us verily unto atheism itself, Amen. I benefit from several other mistakes our folks made. They’re dead now. I can finally be more candid. All of us are walking around with our parents’ hopes for us branded on our foreheads. My Dad expected me to run General Motors. Or least to run their Ad wing. And look how that enterprise tanked, even without me! Thank God for therapy and forgetfulness.
In fiction and daily existence, I value having learned to live forward, most always forward. In and out of print, I am cautiously pessimistic. But I still get these bouts of Hope. They come on like migraines. Entering middle age, we carrying the growing quorum, all our loved ones who died first. There’s an Auden line I love,
“The nightingales are sobbing in the orchards of our mothers, And hearts that we broke long ago have long been breaking others.”
Such tallying can feel oddly clarifying. Every decade I’ve lived has made me simpler, kinder, if five pounds heavier. My Twenties looked good from the outside but lived as an inward hornet’s nest. The decades since have each grown quieter, more replete.
I am teaching Chekhov. If I love his art, his life yields just that much to study. Whitman and Chekhov remain my spirit father-mothers. Both offered strangers medical help, often to these men’s own detriment. My goal, partly based on such mentors’ lived examples, is to leave everybody I meet feeling more powerfully themselves. This, insanely enough, includes grocery clerks, garbage men, my car mechanic. It’s an extension of what we must do for our characters on the page: To allow them a vivid chance at feeling, at momentary dignity, at some lively Saturday nights. I know the man who cleans my Workshop office. I know all about his cockatiel’s game of taking this fellow’s cell-phone from his pocket during naps. The bird loves to poke phone buttons, trying to make sounds, all while chewing off the cell’s plastic numerals. We are sometimes so busy inventing clever issues and synthetic characters, we miss the person who all but shares our office. Chekhov insists that, on and off the page, no one must ever be humiliated.
In your life and writing, how important have your friendships with other artists and writers been?
Oh, Alpha-to-Omega essential. Friendship is underrated. Literary movements are simply clusters of young friends willing to show new work. I think Marriage is a bill of goods sold by Vera Wang Wedding Creations and the Catering Industry. If some new medicine failed its patients more than sixty percent of the time, not even the Food and Drug Administration would allow it on store shelves. “Forsaking all others” is part of the wedding vow. That and monogamy are grotesque promises for any eighteen year old to make. A vow un-keepable. It breeds belated cynicism. Friendship usually works and therefore goes unmentioned. My ‘old’ friends are truly getting old now, some from Boy Scouts in 1961. In a culture so bent on rugged individualism, community’s always undervalued. Only novels still believe in it. All novels are about communities in time, This Specific Village vs. General Death.
Belief in a communal life as one form of salvation, that idea seems lost during this moment of atomized individuation. People live set off in cubicles, people bond with big blue screens, people separate in order to feel fully entertained. After genealogy, porn is what most people seek from the Internet. A sad inversion has set in. Instead of joining others for laughing, singing, even bowling, we rush home with tonight’s amusements in hand like take-out food. Pageantry is eaten, shamefaced, whilst alone. In such an age, Fiction itself becomes a communal corrective.
One of the great joys of being back at the Workshop is watching friendships grow between students. That’s one of the unsung roles of an attentive teacher—to promote comradeship in class. I tell my students on the first day that they’ll learn far more from each other than from me. And yet the teacher can be a secret mastermind, helping people notice each other, finding connections through each other’s consonant work.
Several of my close friends from my own student days here remain my first readers, and I theirs. That’s as good as belonging to a church, having some small posse of fellow tale-makers, profoundly committed to their own work and therefore yours. I mean people who’re so in your life, they no longer make real separation between their own writing and that of their closest friends’. (Competition is a national disease but one that, among grownups, can be cured).
Reading your work is almost like an experience of friendship—the characters practically reaching out from the page, in confidence.
That’s heartening to hear, Kelly. Storytelling should always constitute an invitation, however mysterious. No experimental fiction can afford to forget at least its one similarly experimental auditor. Otherwise, you hear the sound of one hand, whacking. Narrative should operate on the open mutual terms of actual conversation. Even the thorniest of Beckett’s solitary heroes is always talking toward.
Whenever I reread “Middlemarch”, I find myself muttering throughout—at both the writer and her creations. I start arguments with characters’ choices, even as I’m elated to witness their very founding on the page. All this gathers talkingly in the margin. My reader’s conversation with George Eliot alternates between a fan’s awe, ongoing debates and sweet nothings. I love all she knows about churches, banks and hospitals. She understands precisely what such manmade inventions soon demand of Middlemarchers. George Eliot’s Teutonic beauty of mind, for me that stays as memorable and ideal as participating bodily with Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant at, say, age twenty-eight.
I want a reader who might love me that amount, will sit this close. There’s a difference between professional restaurateurs who cook for 300 people per night, and individuals who give one dinner party monthly for no more than four friends. One lives his commercial impulse; the other, more private, is bent on honoring familiars. Making a small dinner, food can become portraits of your honored guests. And though, at this age, I’ve been writing for twenty-five years for uncounted readers in what’s become sixteen languages, I swear I still prepare each narrative meal—one to three guests at a time!
Lucy Marsden, protagonist of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, is a mythmaker and historical revisionist. It’s revealed that the first story told in Practical Heart was technically untrue, truer in spirit than to fact. Is this one thing Literature can do? I mean, creating a myth that’s finally more just, emotional and worthy than mere fact?
Blanche Dubois prefers her room’s overhead light bulb softened by a cheap pink Chinese lantern, “Don’t want realism, I want maaa-gic.” When she’s caught in one of her many lies, she responds, ”Well, that’s the way it should have been.”
We each have an assigned history, then there’s history wished. Our most complex and ruthless truths rests somewhere in between. I think the most memorable fictional characters are those free to participate in both realms, bi-polar. Madame Bovary expected to be born a countess; she somehow came to as a country doctor’s wife. Emma finally convinces herself she’s one reckless countess if only for a few nights. For that, she pays with her life. Who’s to say she made a bad bargain?
What I look for in fiction, including students’ work, is: how many realms can we occupy concurrently? I respond to young writers who can easily write old, old people with sagacity, who can portray babies with wit. Any fool can write about exact contemporaries. That’s often just journalism.
As an amateur historian, I’m forever aware that “the second story” of a building once referred to its murals. I mean those historic tales shown across the walls of each floor. “What story am I on?”
For fantasists like me, History constitutes the ground floor only, Staff Entrance. We all enter there but—given our spirit yearnings, our malformed characters, as soon as possible, we ascend.
My great-grandads fought on opposing sides, both teenagers, at Shiloh. Both lived, the one crippled by a Rebel minie-ball. Trying to learn some of their reality, I’ve foot-soldiered through reenactments of Civil War battles. First I felt half Stephen Crane, later half Hunter Thompson. The politics of most re-enactors pivot far far to the right of mine. At the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina, I was one of 10,000 men in uniform, a gray one. Just as before, smarter Yanks had seized the field’s upper ground. My private’s job: to walk directly into cannon fire, just as my great-great uncle had, for real.
I noticed certain battle truths too often airbrushed nowhere by officialdom. Cannon reports makes horses defecate. A lot. Those soldiers following their horse-mounted officer had to deal—not just with cannon balls incoming—but with also slipping in the big brass’s horse shit. The real battle happened exactly a century and a half ago this second, this same season. The screaming, the smoke, the concurrent sense of impotence and rage, the truly dance-like beauty of crazed interplay between horses, cannons, men. Freud identifies “the Repetition Compulsion” and novelists practice that daily. Re-enactments ad nauseum.
Writing fiction means being enlisted by history while self-defensively dreaming full-out right back into it. Novelists use literal events homeopathically on the page. A pinch of a borrowed reality can strengthen tale and teller: “If this is true, then that might be so, and if that’s true, then why not, possibly, even this?” We must trust our daily knowledge of what’s usual, meaning what is utterly improbable. Emotions never come at you on the level; lived logic’s rarely logical. So, if you build enough inconsistency in, you’ve soon got wax figures that can quicken then cough to life. They can become for you more real than anything, more real than whatever you have merely lived once. Soon the invented echoic reality completely supersedes the daily `New York Times’ delivery, or your buying yogurt or washing fitted sheets. Invented psychology and landscape can grow charged, heraldic and allegorical. It soon becomes your manna, the very protein of purest meaning. Lucky is the person who can exist in both, in all, these thousand realms at once. Divine Comedy.
The voice of Lucy Marsden drives every one of the 700-plus pages in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Was that difficult to sustain? Did you borrow her perspective, or did her voice develop a life of its own?
It was a strange durable visitation. I read the phrase, “Oldest living Confederate widow,” in the New York Times, a 2-inch piece explaining how in 1900, girls of 15 married former drummer boys now in their 50s and 60s. Girls often wed the geezers for their pensions but the veterans tended to be survivors who mulishly survived. I ran upstairs and started typing a shooting scene at a watering-hole during that War. I heard myself describing things in a voice completely unlike my voice. A woman’s voice, ungrammatical yet magisterial, it seemed the voice of the 19th-century, if with a sixth-grade education. Slowly it dawned on me I had come up with a corner piece of some finer larger mosaic, a fragment of battle map far more far-reaching and complex. Into the book went my great granddads diaries and letters from the front along with portraits of the slaves my own kinsmen had shamefully bought and sold. It took me seven years to figure out who was telling me this, why she was telling it now, and what must happen before her book might improbably end. What never really failed was the force of Lucy’s voice. Even now, when making a big decision, I consult both it and her.
English critic compared Lucy to Molly Bloom. And in her musing we’re really at swim amid the riches of one smart associative person’s long-marinating interior life. I think that’s where history really dwells. It’s a ‘reduction’ as they say in cookery school. I distrust authoritative four-star-general-third-person-official. Only witnesses can be trusted one by one. The narrative marrow is all there, in her essence. She is an excellent mime with a very good memory and I seemed to be one of the people she could impersonate. It was reverse channeling. So much, I think, can be encoded in a single Whitmanesque voice, one various unto being, like Molly’s, sometimes painfully symphonic.
Is it hard to be objective about work when you’re writing in first person? That voice must have a kind of momentum.
I built in checks and balances. Reading the work out loud is very important. When you make your prose become literal audible music, you enlist another urgent sense. If your ears feel amused and texturally engaged, if your throat is involved by the glottal stop and swoops of singing it, while your eyes stay pleased by the look of its paragraphing and spaces on the page you designed, it has a chance. Of becoming a complete creature experience, a sensual one. If I had a smell-o-rama button on my computer, I would use that, too. Handwriting is shorthand and a cuneiform so abstract; anything we can do to make it more animal-real becomes an immense benefit.
Learning to edit yourself happens only belatedly. The first magic is the magic of the flood, the spilling forth of inspiration, the mere making of your materiel. Contractors will tell you it’s typical to have one third of your board-footage at a building job wasted, redundant. Still, it had to be on hand. I think beginning writers find it hard to trust—having just felt this sensual jolt of flooding—that there’s anything more to do. Fact is, the second wave can be nearly pleasurable, but it calls upon a very different precinct of your intelligence. Once the raw first pass at a book is stacked up, brand new, some cool German engineer with nickel rimmed specs storms in and barks, “Who said that? Her dress is ridiculous. That’s over-modified.” First flooding is soon submitted to the quality-control inspector. First draft is Youth, second to seventieth is Middle Age, and publication Senility. It’s all over by then. And you? young again, are back to your own full flood season!
Your work is so rich with details of the world, observations about how people are with each other. This information, this knowledge—do you find it in advance of your writing and think, “I’ll save this for fiction,” or you discover what you know in the process of writing?
All novelists are hunter-gatherers. Instead of pelts and meat, we haul home gestures, tones of voice, flukes of weather, patterns of inheritance, patterns of pattern-baldness. It’s all pertinent eventually. And it keeps you riveted to every street and stranger. At age sixty-two, in archival terms, I’m becoming the Library of Congress. A zillion file cabinets full of sparrow-sized trivia. You want to know eighty ways a man of eighty smokes a cigarette. The danger is that the large overview can be lost, shingled across by such minute mineral units. But, since a single sensibility gathered all these facts, a kind of heart-linked unity emerges.
One of my ex-loves is the choreographer, Paul Taylor. We were once at a small county fair together. The sun was setting. Maybe four hundred people on the fairground. I asked him to tell me what he was seeing, choreographically, at this rinky-dink rustic carnival. Fascinating to walk around with him into the evening. He would say: “At the top of the Ferris wheel, the husband is leaning back, while the wife is leaning forward with her hands and forehead on the handrail. That carney barker is smoking a cigarette out of the side of the booth while talking to the customers lined along its front.” The livestock barn proved a square dance in itself. This tour changed the way I saw the world, at least while with Paul. Like him I now grasped everything spatially, as a chaotic single jig. Human and animal gestures made A B C’s of some new movement vocabulary. You keep building till you have a quorum of walks, reversals, steps, effects. Meaning: Starter Dance.
I’ve had the pleasure of being in the home that you are renting this semester. It seemed full of faces –life-sized ecclesiastical figures and masks that you brought with you from North Carolina. Is that a fair approximation of what the inside of your imagination looks like—a gallery full of faces?
Call me low-tech. In art and life, I am a collector of beautiful human features and expressive hands. We just saw Avatar, the trite new technological wonder-movie. It’s a metaphor for post-Bush America. They spent $380 million on special effects meant to simulate munitions, and 50 cents on the story! Only a lifelong narrative artist can see the impoverishment and delusion. Trusting the eloquence of hands and faces could’ve saved many millions in research and development, it might have made us care about at least one figure in this whole bogus video game. What made the Greeks laugh and cry make us laugh and cry. The prodigal son returns and his old forgiving father sees him from afar and, his age ignored, runs on foot to meet him, to press a hand alongside the young sinner’s face. There, that’s seventy-five cents worth of story right there! Such human simplicity is more reverberant and important than ever now. People are hiding from each other in order to experience pleasure. Better go to a Burlesque Palace showing live girls and sit with other horndogs than to retreat into your vinyl rec-room with a girl-on-girl disc for your giant screen.
The communal right of storytelling becomes more and more a central campfire, ignored as low-class, retro. The impulse to gather and commune seems more and more our last sane-making salvation. If you can tell tales via the rites and privileges of hands and faces, through plains hellos and goodbyes, entrances and exits, births and burials as Chekhov does, you’ve accomplished something miraculous, and useful, and collective. Eternal. Low-tech. Mere content. I’ve tried to teach the students this semester a kind of choreography for hands and faces, trusting the body, our holy of holies.
You’ve written pretty fearlessly about the erotic lives of your characters. That’s unusual, even in contemporary literary fiction. Do you have any advice for writers who might find it intimidating to write about sex and sexuality?
One advantage of being alive at this tired point in human history is precisely how widely we acknowledge our being sexual creatures, none of us alike erotically. We are literally animals and there’s still great shame acknowledging that. Women say, “Men are dogs.” Who’d argue?
You can’t really describe a character, or create anyone whole cloth on the page without building them around a sexuality. It must be present just as their spirit core must be. For most people, practicing sex comes somewhere after food, taxes, job security and child and lawn care. Fiction should place a character’s sexual imperative honestly. But sex is a force, even for people who remain virgins for life. Perhaps especially for them. When we think of feral brilliance and pitiless insight, a double-yolker self, we turn to Emily Dickinson and Flannery O’Connor. Whatever they lost to sexual inexperience, believe me, they gained elsewhere, for our benefit!
If anything, virgins are (and I confess to speaking speculatively here!) more highly sexualized than others, precisely because all that still exists in a sate of endless potential. The unknown carries a godly force.
It’s dishonest to chop off any portrait from the neck down. I think we must let our characters dictate how they are sexually treated on the page. But, if you stick with somebody for 700 pages, they’ve just going to feel sexy sometimes! Then, as ever, their erotic fantasies are—being cost-free, extensive and irresponsible—bound to emerge as radical, notable, kinkily unique.
How would you describe your work ethic?
Chekhov always wonders how people 300 years from now will view us. Might we not be considered primitive layabouts? Or will they understand our spiritual striving, how it manifests in Work. Like him, I think work, if anything can, will save us. I know intelligent people who never held a day-job. Sounds lucky. It’s not. 24 hours a day are too many to fill with anything but hypochondria, mischief, and eventual meanness, professional sadness. People need to wake up and go someplace and do something positive for other people. Though writers stay alone at home, they’re fulfilling, with language, fantasy, precisely such a communal task and rendezvous.
I grew up in a house where work was thought honorable, essential. Art? Just leisure-time hobby stuff, effete. I grew up working, even as a young kid. My father ran businesses, and my brothers and I were right there laboring. I felt resentful at the time. I wanted to be home, drawing in my locked room. I already felt art was just another kind of work. My father belatedly came to see this; soon as I started selling my oil paintings to Yankees at age twelve! The more I jacked my prices, the more lateral respect Pop gave me. I soon made a cult of painting while standing up before an easel instead of sitting, a boneless dandified slug, at some table. My father grew ecstatic only when one of my books leapt briefly onto the Best Seller List. I cringed inwardly and worried for my cerebral bona fides. For Dad, Retail was the Nobel. He begged to know how much I’d made then he tried working out how much that’d translate into—-my earnings per hour! Three cents? But he was a son of the Depression as I am the product of wild postwar prosperity. Thanks to his work, I have always lived with the confidence of a rich man, though I own little past a house and car. For Dad, despite having made himself handsomely prosperous, he never stopped feeling jeopardized, evictable. Was this a coat maybe too thin for December?
But his blind faith in Work proved contagious, genetic. Early morning is what I call “fillet of day.” I mean before the phone starts ringing, when you really have the house to yourself, and the world to yourself. You’re closest then to the dream state; work becomes a trusting automatic extension of all that. I write till 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon, unless I’m finishing a book or wrapping something up. Sometimes I make myself take Sundays off. That’s always helpful afterwards, and makes the following Monday a tad livelier. But, since stopping and starting is the hardest part of writing, if you write all the time you’ll never have to worry about that.
I write a lot but release very little, but that’s part of my work ethic, too. I have, maybe, an over-exalted view of what a book should be. I care about being of use to future readers long after I am so much mildew. Because I was very lucky in finding only great books at the beginning of my reading life, that’s all I want to leave. Turns out I do believe in an afterlife. It’s called Literature.
But, oy, is this extremely hard work what we do. You have to be able and willing to put in the uncounted forty thousand hours. My favorite phrase about this is from Andre Gide. He said, “I re-write to be reread.”
How does your own experience as a student of writing at the Workshop inform your approach to teaching?
There’s something very powerful about coming back to a place that helped form you. You can take your own pulse across four decades. Here I first learned how to work as a writer.
I’d already experienced a great teacher, Grace Paley, while still an undergraduate, but of course I was also studying French, and history, and Balzac, and every other thing in the world. It was only when I got to the Workshop that writing became what I did all day. Free at last.
My present students are lavishly gifted. Each one has the goods. Of course I want to blast them out of being blue-chip safe atop their talent. This generation aspires to the Unassailable whereas my own rushed toward the Exposed. We were exhibitionists, I guess. On and off the page. We were young. Maybe living with computers makes neutrality and efficiency seem the safest stance. I associate all that with security-cameras, death. I press my students toward emotion, demonstrations, choreography, not mere states of mind. And not work that considers using footnotes inherently witty. We discounted typography as meaning in 1974 when it meant more.
I always praise my young writers before suggesting what might be added to their repertoire of strong effects. We tend to repeat those things that we’ve been praised for. Everybody in any class here was the genius of their junior high’s creative writing group. It is sometimes hard to have so much shiny talent glinting like foil at one table. But every one claims a different voice and experience. I want my criticism of student work always to echo a sort of “Yes, but—“ quality. Or maybe I mean “Yes, and—“. We cannot rest on what we know we can do. Always head into the unknown, the darker corridor. In learning a craft there is always something to know and perfect next. And that’s both bewildering and elating. My teaching has gotten less doctrinaire, even less overtly critical. With fourteen hundred applicants for twenty-four places, no one gets in here by accident! That said I want them to proceed from strength to strength. Every gift comes with its unique texture, startling colorations. Every facet of a talent must be spoken of, rewarded, and preserved in the very act of its own enlargement.
Sometimes you meet with a gifted young writer who is still in full late adolescence. He wants to turn you, his willing writing-coach, into another brutal father figure. Sad. There’s no time to wait him out, not if he’s already thirty. “I hope you find someone who’ll tell you your work is already perfect” if that’s what you think you need. You know he’s doomed if he cannot listen.
You fear that others are already matching up with ball and chain spouses who’ll resent each hour spent at a desk. This is like watching someone step into a damp spot marked “Quicksand.” Who you pick to live with matters. No sex on earth is good enough to outlast that misery. Look what Zelda gave Scott before costing him ten thousand times more in the end. You watch them make decisions that will prevent their getting what they say they want. There’s Darwinism at work here. You must want to tell the story, be burning to tell it. In literature as on Galapagos, the big stories eat the little ones. Nobody ever wrote a great book by accident.
Every student differs in their own acceptance of their big talents. They must calculate its present demands against its future benefits. Med School is still an option. To be a real writer, you must live in training and not trade on stray spurts of pages every six weeks. No professional musician or athlete would ever risk that. I find a huge amount of talent here. And sometimes it’s like rodeo-riding—hard to stay on for very long.
One of my jobs: helping a student get back up on her-his last rambunctious Brahma bull. The writer must ‘break’ this very bull in order to move on. When the chute’s close to bursting open, I must jump out front and be the rodeo-clown preventing this young novelist from getting trampled by the very power that’s just thrown him, the very power that is his alone.
My own defensive gear? An orange clown-wig, the readiness to be a moving comic-target, and all these broken mended ribs of my own!