“I believe that we all want to stick out in the world,” Gordon Lish once said, “that the least of us has a profound impulse to distinguish himself from everyone else.” “Sticking out” is the least of Gordon Lish’s accomplishments. He is a near mythic figure within New York literary circles as the most visible teacher and editor of American writing in the past thirty years. Lish worked as an editor at Esquire and Knopf and was founding editor of The Quarterly, among other literary periodicals. He taught at Yale and Columbia before taking his fiction workshops private and several articles have referred to him as “the most sought after, most expensive” writing teacher in the nation. As a fiction writer, Lish has published eight books under his own name, most notably Dear Mr. Capote, Peru and the recently released Epigraph . Last year Lish signed an agreement with New York publishing house Four Walls Eight Windows to publish his new fiction as well as revised editions of his earlier books. This interview attempts to focus attention on Gordon Lish’s writing rather than his other exploits. We met at the offices of The Quarterly on Manhattan’s East Side in December of 1996 and, not surprisingly, talked for some time of writers and writing before the tape recorder was turned on.
Your influence as editor and a teacher has certainly been well documented, but what writers have had an influence on your own work?
I think if I were to speak to the question of writers that have influenced me it would be convenient to deflect the force of the question by citing philosophers I read who have, in fact, influenced me enormously, and I cite one of them, in fact, in the novel that brought you to my doorstep, Epigraph. Which is to say Julia Kristeva, with specific respect to her book Powers of Horror. But it’s fiction writers that you’re looking for.
Not necessarily. Kristeva’s obviously important and I’m certainly curious as to her influence. You mention her as far back as Zimzum and she has the epigraph to Epigraph.
I want to make it very clear that her fiction certainly has not amused me in any kind of way but I’m able to read it. But, of course, I wouldn’t even attempt to read it given that I would have to then be reading into English and I’m willing to take the view that any writing with any prospect of making its way with me would have to have been done in English. The kinds of things I’m looking for in a piece of writing can only have been put there by somebody writing in English, or writing in American English. I read and reread Gilles Deleuze’s Thousand Plateaus. I read everything I can read by Deleuze and Guattari. Giorgio Agamven I’ve read all of and reread and am rereading now. That would be true of at least two Kristeva titles, Powers of Horror and Strangers to Ourselves. I think I’ve read that one three times. I’ve read all of Bloom several times. That is to say, I’m not interested in Bloom, the critic, but Bloom, the theoretician, yes. I’ve read all of Donoghue, as much as I can. I don’t think there’s anybody writing English sentences that produces better ones that Donoghue.
You said that you were interested only in American fiction writers but that rule obviously doesn’t apply to critics and philosophers.
Yes, all are in translation with the sole exception of Bloom and Donoghue. Among fiction writers, living fiction writers, none would be more immediately retrieved by me across that paddle of responses that would count more than DeLillo, surely. And then secondarily, Ozick. I would be a liar if I were to fail to remark the affection that I have had for certain of Harold Brodkey’s short pieces, so called. As he himself was given defensively to observe, not all that short. I rather imagine that certain of Brodkey’s short pieces probably surpass, in magnitude, my own novels, thinking of “Largely An Oral History of My Mother,” of the story, “S.L.” These pieces, incidentally, appeared, and one wants to underscore this observation, for malicious reasons, in The New Yorker, under the editorship of Bill Shawn. One wonders if The New Yorker, by implication I suppose my observations suggest, would publish such work now. I know they were happy and delighted to publish Brodkey’s pieces on his dying of AIDS which I didn’t think quite filled the bill for me. But in any case, I read Brodkey’s novel, A Party of Animals, in manuscript, over the course of one night, starting as soon as I got home from my office, having been given the manuscript by Bob Gottlieb, not by Brodkey, whose editor I was officially at the time, and the gist of that is that Brodkey’s delivering his manuscript to Gottlieb was his way of severing relations with me although later on he elected to repair that severance. Not all that effectively certainly, and not in a way that would inte’rest us here. But the point is that I took the manuscript home that night, started reading it about seven and, despite the distractions of family life, stayed with it, I suppose, pretty incessantly until ten that morning, having completed the reading of well over a thousand pages and coming to the view that this was the surpassing novel by an American of the century. I would now amend that view, holding Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for that post, for that distinction, if my reading of these things has any value at all. You’re speaking to me on a day when I feel myself rather more vacant from myself than I have ordinarily felt, but each day I’m getting the sense of my losing my purchase on that personality that I had sought so hard to disguise myself within and to present myself under the auspices of, and I don’t do that anymore, or I’m losing my grasp on that presentation of myself, and I’m willing to therefore offer, with my comments, the ironic interpretation that they may be completely without value. I mean, everybody else may come to that view but I know I have come more and more, certainly, to that view. But anyhow, influence is a considerable word and requires every kind of examination, and one does not want to give it, but in an “in my face” or “in your face” kind of way, Brodkey’s fictions and DeLillo’s fictions and Ozick’s fictions and McCarthy, with particular respect to that book, Blood Meridian and alternatively Outer Dark, I find them unbudgeable acmes of expression in the language and cannot claim that, as distant as my work may seem from any of the aforementioned, that they are not, to a greater extent than anything else I might posit, on my mind as I write. Is this work, in its appetite, rather to say its absence of appetite, does it make a legitimate claim to a place in the national literature alongside a Blood Meridian? That’s a most disturbing question. What I’m trying to get at is that what I want from my own activities as a writer is, to put it plainest, everything. What I want is some kind of sufficiency in reply to the incommensurable insult of death. I want everything from the page and reckon that, even though my everything may be an entirely different coloration than McCarthy’s everything, there is an absolutism, or an ultimacy, in which these artifacts can be measured, one to the other. To find oneself insufficient in the face of that, insufficient in the face of DeLillo’s fourteen hundred and fourteen page manuscript for the novel Underworld or DeLillo’s Mao II which I’ve just read for the fourth time, is distracting at the very least. Is it disabling? Not quite disabling. So it appears because I continue to scribble away, and not without, I beg you to believe, the intention that the mark made by these works will be competitive. I don’t wish to make the claim that my aims exist apart from what is also in that category. I’m not willing to say that I write for myself I’m not willing to say I write for God. I’m not willing to say I write without a great concern to see the work translated into time and space and therefore occupying, maybe not making, a place for itself with other works that have made themselves. I don’t think I will ever, given on the one hand the terms of my ambitions and on the other hand the terms of my limitations, however much I may believe absolutely in the Swinburnian notion that one stands on his limitation, one stands on his limitude and in standing on his limitude one shall be as lavish as one requires. It’s only from standing on one’s limitude that one can achieve that absolute lavishness. Despite all that, I’m not disabled but am much dismayed to reckon with my failing limitations, my failing powers to face my limitations, as measured against these acmes that I’ve remarked: DeLillo, Brodkey, McCarthy and Ozick.
What is your greatest limitation as a writer?
I’m a small man. I believe that the body is continuous with the sentence at its best. I don’t have the stamina, the physical strength to produce the kind of text that persons in better position of their bodies would have. You know, my friend DeLillo can get out and run six miles. He’s not as big a man as Brodkey is or as Cormac McCarthy is. I’ve seen McCarthy and he’s a fairly sizable fellow. There’s something to it, in my judgment. How does this speak to the matter of gender I immediately am made to wonder but we’re not going to engage that topic, I do hope. But I can make the claim for myself that my body precedes me out of the page, and with all of the vicissitudes that have always interfered with its translation into what’s exterior, my having had disfiguring skin disease all my life, my having been a little guy, and therefore extremely, extremely dexterous in beating big guys in games until I got to a certain age when bigness mattered more than skill mattered, more than adroitness mattered, or deftness mattered. What I think is my defect now, as I’m able to examine my experience as a writer now, is that I’ve passed that point where mere adroitness, mere deftness will do, and massiveness, size, bulk, and all of the vulgarity of that notion is certainly the ground on which I hold myself to failure. And the work will always fail on account of that.
Then wouldn’t logic argue that your earlier writings, when you were likely in better physical shape, come closer to the vibrancy, the absolute you’re trying to achieve?
It doesn’t. I’ve looked at it. I’ve had the luck, under the agreement made with Four Walls, to look at the early work and revise the hell out of it and I know I’m infinitely more able now than I was then but that
ability is all craft. It’s not desire.
The ability is deftness?
That’s what it is. It’s just adroitness. I know the moves now. I know how to make it down the court and elude those who would interfere with me but whether I can make the kind of score that I wanted to make, that I set out to make, producing on the page the vision that brought about the impulse, that’s another question entirely. My physical response to Blood Meridian is, Gee, that’s my kind of stuff. That’s wall to wall my kind of stuff and I would be competent of being driven by a notion like that but absolutely incompetent of bringing it to bear, bringing it into any kind of compositional reality. I couldn’t do it. And if I produced five hundred pages of that I’d probably end up reducing it to fifty pages.
But the fact is Blood Meridian is beyond the capabilities of ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths percent of us. Is it a sin that neither you nor I will produce a Blood Meridian?
It is, Rob. It is. For me, it is. If we take the view that the only reason to do this is to somehow make a reply, make a reasonable reply to the unreasonable character of existence, to time, because that’s what animates me, then we’re in the realm of ultimate matters. We’re in the realm of absolute matters, and it’s precisely that McCarthy does what ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredths percent cannot do that makes it the only thing to be done. It’s necessity itself to somehow seek to surpass McCarthy.
Doesn’t that take us too far into the realm of competition?
I’m all about competition. I’m all about competition. The horror of that is, since I invoke that, it’s precisely that view that undoes me. Ifl could take a more libertarian view about myself, if I could be more forgiving, if I could say, Well, there’s a kind of thing that I do and it’s forgivable if I do that kind of thing as well as I am able, I’m left entirely dissatisfied with the experience. It isn’t enough for me. I’m the kind of person who if I come to the shopping mall, when the sign says, “Something for everybody,” I immediately want to rewrite that, to revise the statement to read, “Everything for Gordon.” And that’s the only kind of shopping mall I want to be in.
But aren’t we doomed to failure if we realize at the outset that we cannot achieve Blood Meridian?
But somebody did. But somebody did, you see. Somebody did. A man did it. Somebody wrote Moby Dick one has to remind oneself.
But isn’t there pleasure in achieving as absolute a work of fiction as you yourself are capable of?
Only defeat. Only defeat because it is, again, the affirmation of nature, of time that you are not enough. You are not sufficient. You are defective through and through. You die. No, it is not acceptable to me that I be served up my portion since the receipts that I will eventually be given by time exceed my portion. All shall be taken from me and I need all right now. I want all the women. I can recall when I was twelve, thirteen years old having the view that the only prospect that was reasonable would be that I would bed all the women. I don’t know what this meant to me at age twelve and thirteen. I know that there was a joke that was commonly about in those days about a guy that was whacked out who had precisely the same vision. But I’ve been locked up twice and probably not for trying to bed all the woman but for having notions that it was a doable thing. I continue, at age almost sixty-three, to feel that it’s a kind of no option situation since my construction of life is a sort of no option situation. Nevertheless, given the alibi of psychopathology, I’m not daunted by this. I mean, I’m not daunted by the absolute numbers, by your making the claim that, Well, Gordon, Blood Meridian was done by the rarest fellow under the rarest circumstances in the rarest moment. He may not be competent of that accomplishment now. He probably could not do it again. But I have yet to exceed myself, to cross a line as uncrossable as that. I think that’s the only thing. I’m not satisfied with anything less. If l were a larger man then maybe. This is where we return to the weird politics of body. I’ve made the claim that the accomplishment of the un-accomplishable act may be a function of body, a sufficient body, and I feel I have an insufficient body. If I were a larger man I might be willing to forego that absolutism in respect of accomplishment. I might be willing to be satisfied with less than myself on the page, feeling I had more of myself in reality. But I feel myself actually excavated. I feel myself, placed by reason of circumstance, on the margins in both realms and I have in me all the frustration, all the rage, all the anger, all the viciousness of temperament that is the result of that sense of myself having been thrust to the margins, by reason, not of ability, but of the given.
You mentioned your presentation of yourself. With your fiction you consistently mix the obviously autobiographical. Is this an attempt to recreate or remake yourself?
Everything I do is an effort to remake myself I’m not interested in remaking anybody else and I’m not interested in recreating anything outside of myself I’m interested in finding, in the page, a replacement for what I feel I’ve been deprived of in actuality. But I beg you to believe that when you say obvious autobiographical elements, I would refuse that observation and say apparent autobiographical elements.
Well, I’m referring to more than using your own name as the name of your protagonist. I’m talking about things such as using your own neighborhood as setting or the names of your own father and mother as the names of the protagonist’s father and mother.
I have two ways of answering this, or three ways. Let me give you three notions that I think probably apply to what I’m up to. One is, if l can set forth certain facticities that are somewhat known of me, then I can buttress the force of authority in those absolute inventions that I’m going to set forth. So that’s one trick. In the case of Peru, for example, I dedicate the book to my mother and father, gave their actual names so I could use the actual names in the book to give some sense of authority to the claim that I had, at the age of six, or the speaker had, at the age of six, done away with another boy. I gave the name of the person who was presumably assassinated in the course of the book, Stephen Michael Adinoff, and his dates, trying to lend a certain verifiable force to the fictions that have been assembled around those facticities. I do it, too, because I think it’s pointless to invent certain points. The energy that is consumed in the invention, I think, is quite uselessly consumed. Why bother to invent? The whole thing is a fiction by my lights. Everybody knows it’s made up. Why play that game? If it’s a novel, if it’s being promoted as a novel, it’s being put out there or sponsored as a novel, then presumably it’s all made up, is it not, so why bother?
While you’re at this point, “being promoted as a novel,” in what way is My Romance a novel?
In what way is it a novel? Only because I said it’s a novel. I think the book says it’s a novel. It may not be a novel. I don’t know how I would define what a novel is. I know people spend a lot of time with that activity. I don’t know if it’s interesting anymore. I read recently a book I’m rather fond of, Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark. I’m told that it was originally published as a memoir in England or in Ireland and is being published as a novel here. Does it interfere with my savor of the text any to know that in one instance it’s to be viewed in this category? I must say, Yes. Yes, it does. Had I known it was viewed as a memoir and then later published as a novel for reasons that may or may not have to do with literary gamesmanship I might not have been so disturbed by the discovery. These books that I put out are only novels by declaration. Are they novels by definition? Are they novels by construction? Heavens, I would be the last one to be competent to say. Certainly any of the critics that I’ve named that take their chicken and peas in the United States would say no. I mean, I imagine that Harold Bloom and Denis Donoghue would say that’s just Gordon doing what Gordon does but it’s scarcely to be viewed as a novelistic enterprise. But I think I might persuade Julia Kristeva of a different view or I might be able to persuade Giorgio Agamven, certainly, of a different view. I don’t think anything on that score, this is just to remark by the by, is particularly new, by the way. I mean, this has been done for a long, long, long, long time. I’m not a scholar with sufficient information to give you names and addresses, but what I’m up to, or what I appear to be up to, the seeming actuality of so much that I put on the page, as in My Romance, has been done for a longish, longish, longish while under the rubric of novel or imaginative writing. My Romance turns on my turning my father upside down while he was perceived to be coughing, undergoing a coughing fit, and dropping him while doing that, and having had the inspiration to turn him upside down by reason of his having told the story over and over again of having done so to a brother who was choking on a peanut or a sourball or a piece of jelly apple or something in the park. The observation I might make about that, and this is interesting to me, is that it represents that particular mechanism, that device, precisely the mechanism that I apply in Epigraph, and I see it everywhere in me, the inability to escape my own devices. Clearly, clearly, what study of any of these works sufficiently would discover, as I am now discovering since I’m revising them all, is that I’m quite unequipped to escape certain rather well worked grooves in my personality when I perceive myself as the one speaking. These are the things I say, and I say them again and again and again and again, hoping each time to say them somewhat more ably than I have said them. But the fact that I am saying them over and over again certainly speaks to an authenticity in them. It certainly must speak to some kind of deeply positioned autobiographical stance. So I can’t deny it, can I? I can’t deny it. So there they are. Even in the effort to reinvent and write another autobiographical novel, as Epigraph might be construed to be, I’m back in the same place again. I’ve only got two or three, not even themes. I’ve only got two or three, not even tales to tell. There are two or three bits that I can’t let go of because they won’t let go of me. But let me put this to you. The force of their fascination for me is certainly vouchsafed by my inability to escape them. I do try. I do try to elude the purchase taken on me by that which has developed in me, the jeopardy of the gaze. I do try to do that but I don’t succeed. Does anyone succeed at this? I’m not a dose enough student of anyone’s writing, or I’m too polite, despite what’s claimed of me, to offer an observation yea or nay. I’m not willing to believe I’m unique in this respect. I might have been able to get away with it better had I been a poet. I read Wallace Stevens a lot, since you asked about influence. I read Stevens’ letters a lot. I’m eager to find all sorts of connections between Stevens’ life and my own, right down to, and I’ll put this to you, my extraordinary discovery not long ago that the face on the coin, on the half dollar coin, and on the dime that I gazed at so often as a child in honor of my idea of an American woman, since I come from an immigrant family, what a great American woman looked like, the one that you would have to bed in lieu of all the other women you could not bed turns out to have been modeled for a sculptor who was a landlord in Chelsea. He was, actually in fact, Stevens’ landlord when he and Elsie Kachel, his wife, were living in Chelsea, and the design on the coin was modeled by Stevens’ wife, so that it’s fair to make the claim that I was infatuated with Stevens’ wife, or at least her profile, from the time I was five or six or seven years old. You looked at the dime. You looked at the half dollar and you saw Stevens’ wife, amazingly. When I say influence in this respect, what got me on this stream of discourse was what I would take to be repetitive fascinations, or fascinations surfacing again and again and again and again, in Stevens. I think we’re rather more willing to forgive the poet than we are to forgive the novelist. But I’m probably not a novelist and I’m probably not a poet either. I’m on the page. Talking to you now, the responses I make to you, as much as they seem to rush out of me without very careful consideration, are very practiced. I’m not surprising myself. I’m not saying anything that I haven’t really probably said, one way or another, before. What I produce for the page probably comes a little closer, a little closer, to getting rid of, or squandering, something actual in myself and the pleasure I take from this, the way in which it answers the aggressivity in me, to use Kristeva’s term from the first epigraph, is as close as I’m going to get to the sublime. I feel good with it. I’ve come to the view, with the work that I do, that it has finally become absolutely necessary for me to do it and that if I am made to see, five years after the work has achieved print, that I’ve simply iterated, yet again, an earlier reiteration, I’m not dismayed by it. It seems to me that if the task is to write my name onto the surface of the earth, which I take to be as hard a surface as we will find, then the effort of scribing the same mark over and over and over again might leave some kind of trace. And I think that’s what I’m doing, writing the same mark over and over and over again.
When you say writing the same mark over and over again, are you making the same effort, are you using the same muscles when you begin a novel that you use when you’re rewriting, for example, Dear Mr. Capote, which you’ve recently done?
Best question I was asked, Rob. Best question anybody ever asked me. I use my dick, mainly, to write the first time and I’m using my brains to do the revisions. I mean, not my brain. I’m using rather practiced sequences of motions that have to do chiefly with mind or chiefly with know how. I’m trying to stick it into the page the first time out. The twenty-eight versions of Epigraph, each of which was disposed of and each of which, I would argue, is a distance from its predecessor. I disposed of them entirely because I’m trying to create a blank, but I couldn’t create that blank, quite plainly. Never could create that blank. They were done with an effort to jam it in as deeply as I could. There, in fact, is, it occurs to me now, quite felicitously, a little moment in the book when the speaker, which I find to be the delicate way to mark the narrator, is discussing the pressure that is produced between the unmentionables, I think is his word, his own unmentionable and his sex partner’s unmentionable, by reason of her gesture with her heels. She’s able to enact some kind of gesture with her heels and his ankles such that the contact between them is tighter. I’m always looking for that tighter and tighter and tighter contact. I find that in actual sex it’s never quite considerable enough. And I’m not talking about a psychic or a spiritual or an emotional experience. I’m talking about simply the body being in contact with its other never being quite sufficient to satisfy me. I never feel like I’m in enough, man. I’m always afraid that she’s going to say, Are you in yet?
Does the analogy hold true with the work? Are you ever afraid that the book is going to voice back, Are you in yet?
Oh, man. Do you know what? This is it. Given the terms that I’ve invoked by reason of everything I’ve said, I think you’ve offered the supreme reply to my work. I would like to not only put the steak and potatoes out there but to gobble them all up, gobble up everything on the table, and everybody else’s food, too, put my hands on their plate and eat their food as well. So yes, the book’s saying, Yes Gordon, tell me when you’re in. That’s probably it. I’m just going to have to deal with that. I don’t know what else to do. But you know who’s in? Certainly McCarthy. Certainly in Blood Meridian. I would say he’s really in in Blood Meridian and DeLillo’s really in in Underworld.
I want to talk about the revision process and editing your own work but, while we’re talking about Epigraph specifically, you said that there’s twenty-eight versions of that novel. Would we call them versions or drafts?
I wouldn’t call them drafts. I never sit down with ambition to produce something that I’ll then rid myself of or keep some semblance of and work through and improve. No, I write it as ably as I can, as truly as I can, as carefully, as closely machining a sentence with ferocity of attention that I would hold to be as good as you’re going to get, as good as I’m going to get, ever.
So there were twenty-eight previous versions of Epigraph before the one that was published?
What you’re holding in your hand is twenty-nine. It’s a completely different undertaking. From start to finish a different rendering. This is the only one that turned out to be epistolary.
It never was epistolary until I did the last one and then that I revised and revised. The process I undergo usually is when I get it back in type the first time round I do about eighty percent of it all over again.
Is Epigraph your greatest accomplishment as a writer? Is it the closest you’ve come to that absolute as a writer?
Oh God, I hope not, man.
If you had to hand over one of your books as an example of your finest effort towards the absolute, which one would you choose?
I won’t dodge the question because I’m always of the view that I’m about to crap out and whatever I’ve gotten on the record is it. It would be improper to point to something yet unwritten, and the work presently underway, Arcade, even though I’m up to rather a lot of pages is, God knows, not for the record yet. But there’s a book called Self-Imitation of Myself I can’t recite the title without offering the observation that DeLillo abominates that title and maybe that’s probably reason why I insist upon it now, so as to avoid any taint of being influenced by DeLillo although he’s influenced me a lot in respect to very specific matters. I asked him recently about an epigraph for the novel Arcade. It’s a completely contrived epigraph, by the way, but assigned to somebody. I do that from time to time. I’m a bad guy, Rob. But that’s all right. I mean, it’s a novel, right? It’s a book that, in fact, Four Walls has their hands on. I finished it about a year ago, I think it is. I finished a novel called Chinese and a novel called Self-Imitation of Myself and I haven’t read either one of them. I don’t really want to read Chinese at all. I imagine I’ll be much displeased when I do read it but I have a sense that Self-Imitation of Myself would probably be that book that I would put before you as that object, making the claim that it not so much expresses my best token in the game, but it probably encompasses the heart of me better than anything I’ve ever done.
Will the words “a novel” be printed beneath the title?
Yes, otherwise I’d probably be put away in jail forever. Now I haven’t looked at it, mind you, in that occasion of desire when I believed I was in as far as I could’ve got in and she was screaming with completion and perfection of all of her wants. When we have a look at the matter she may make the claim, Were you there? Did anything happen? Tell me when it’s over.
So Self-Imitation is a still dick book?
It’s a dick book. All my books are dick books.
But much time has passed since the original appearance of Dear Mr. Capote and you’ve gone back and revised it. Doesn’t that make the reprint a brain book?
It sure does and they all will become, but you know they’re infinitely better reflections of my concerns for cadence, my concerns for the syntactical relations that might be achieved. They’ve been spot cleaned of their errors to the extent I’m able, but the initial error, the original error, where I wanted to put my dick in the first place, there’s the thing. Where do you want to put your pencil in the first place occurs to me as critical, and it’s probably there that I’m never going to escape. Here, I’ll tell you something I haven’t told anyone. My original fascination, the thing that set me in motion, the thing I wanted to write about with this book, Epigraph, was produced in a glance. I think it’s referred to in the most passing way in the novel that now obtains, or the work that now obtains if you’ll grant me that, but at a certain point, at the initial point, when the originary moment was upon me, this was it. My wife was being held aloft by two nurses and a third person. I don’t know who the third person was in the room with her but there were two nurses and a third person. She was strangling on her saliva. All the material in her bowels was running out of her anus. She was urinating. Everything was coming out of everywhere. Suction tubes were in her everywhere. She had tubes in her chest, two tubes in her chest, and because she could no longer flex her feet, given the nature of the disease which had made her muscles in her feet useless, they had fixed in a certain position. She was positioned on her toes. The most excruciating pain one would imagine. She could no longer speak, of course. She could not even scream her agony. And I was rushing back and forth from the closet in the kitchen to the bathroom adjoining our bedroom, where my wife was, with towels. We always had stacks to clean up and clean up and clean up. And she must have, at the time, weighed forty, forty-five, fifty pounds. I’ve never seen anything like it, never imagined, and I’ve been in two bughouses, been in jail. I’m willing to look at anything. I’ve looked at hard things in my life, but I never imagined I would see anything quite so close to a transfiguring moment as this. This was as close as I would ever come to seeing the unseeable. I looked at this thing and felt such shame in looking at it. I had the sense of such deep seated shame in looking upon her nakedness in this way. This was a nakedness of the spirit. I don’t even have that termed. I would have to try to write it out and write it out and write it out. But that’s what animated me in the moment. I thought, That’s the thing. That was the aspect. Not my wife, not the three people, but just what I was able to sense, the “on the toesness.” Her “on the toesness.” “On the toesness” is the only way to say it. It was her “on the toesness.” It was the bones. It was the deathhead, the mouth open and everything rushing out all over the body. I wanted to make a book out of that. I wanted to make a book out of that and my looking at it. I wanted to make a book out of my sense of being unable to achieve contact between my unmentionable and that unmentionable. I wanted to make a book about my being kept out of it, at a distance from it, and because of being kept out of it, at a distance from it, everlastingly ashamed, everlastingly damned in my judgment. Damned. I couldn’t do that. I tried. I don’t know how many of those twenty-eight books we’ve been talking about were efforts to do that but I certainly couldn’t get anywhere close to it. I beg you to believe all of them were efforts to reduce the whole of the event to a wispiness of it that I’m not even competent to describe to you. All of it achieved in the glance, and certainly vividly. I mean, I’m still able to look exactly at the thing I was looking at then, and able to revisit the same feelings I had then. It’s not as if I’ve lost it, but what has occurred is a failure before it, an insufficiency before the force of the object, and it’s important that I make the point, the object is not something which would be describable by anybody else but myself, and only to be seen in capturing that fraction of a second when that certain composition of elements was as it were and as I was in relation to them. That’s what I mean by the object.
Is the incapability of rendering that moment, that vision, that feeling of shame, is that a temporary incapability? Is that something that you couldn’t achieve with this book? Is that something you will ever be able to capture?
Rob, I don’t know. I will try. I will try. I’ll never have another one like that and I can’t do that one again. I failed that one. I contaminated it. I can speak to it as I’m doing with you now. I may find myself speaking to it, but I’ll never render it. Now, I beg you to believe that part of that sense of failure certainly derives out of my knowing, absolutely knowing, that Delillo, that Brodkey, that McCarthy would not fail in the face of those objects. They could do it. I certainly would include Ozick in that, but I’m not prepared to go beyond that and say that Denis Johnson, for example, who we both admire very greatly, could do it or any other persons we’ve been naming could do it. I think maybe Barry Hannah could do it because Barry Hannah has an enormous heart and he’s afraid of nothing. I recall Donoghue once saying about Barry Hannah, when I think I was publishing Hannah’s Airships, Barry Hannah is afraid of nothing in experience. I try to be afraid of nothing in experience but I’m really afraid of everything. I try to adopt this disguise I’m afraid of nothing. I like to say I’ve been in the bughouse twice. I’ve been in jail. I’ve done some heavy stuff. I’ve driven across country a number of times with Neal Cassady, that kind of shit, but the fact of the matter is I’m afraid of everything. Everything. Principally I’m afraid of her saying, Tell me when you’re in, you know. That kind of thing. I’m terribly afraid of anything exterior of myself and have always been. I’ve never not been afraid. I’ve always been uncomfortable. I’ve never not been uncomfortable. I’ve always been uncomfortable with my body. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the earth and I can’t seem to ever find my way on the page outside of the pressure of those repressed powers, of those repressed forces in me. That’s what I’m all about. I’m all about my fear. I would like to make the claim that the desire in me is adequate to displace the fear in order to produce a text but always, at the end of the text, when I come back to it, I see that fear really won out.
Fear affects your writing but does or did fear ever affect you when you acted as editor?
No. I’m tyrannical. I’m certainly reported to be tyrannical and everybody can’t be wrong.
I’m assuming that no one else edits your work.
You know, I was edited once. No one edits my work in the sense that I have edited others, line by line editing, no. But I’ll tell you one time I was edited and I knuckled under and it kills me that I did it and it’s lost now forever. I can recall being told by somebody when I told the story that I should answer now with revision but I couldn’t do it when I got Capote. But it had to do with Capote and it had to do with the editor then, Billy Abrams, calling me at the last minute because I had gone through many, many revisions, and then saying, You know, I don’t want this last one. I want the one before the last one. I said, No, no. The last one is the one that’s the way I want it and I just can’t have it any other way, and what the last one was was a kind of frame over the frame over the frame, the unfolding of the guy who was claiming to be killing people. He suddenly shuts up in mid-sentence and a letter to Mailer occurs and it’s myself writing to Mailer about a bet we had about memory, trying to recall some responses to some trivia questions about soap operas and the claim being made to see if the narrative structure will produce recollections of a kind. It had to do maybe with what Ben Bernie would say or what Ben Bernie’s sign-off was, I can’t recall, but you get a letter to Mailer, a quite civilized letter to Mailer about that discussion we had, and we had the bet, and I win the bet because here, in fact, is the proper answer to the question. And then it comes back to the novel as the novel is going forward again and then it comes back to Mailer again and it was very, very carefully worked out. Minor, minor citations in a novel that was going along become major citations in the letter and vice versa so that what was foregrounded was backgrounded, what was backgrounded was foregrounded. It was kind of a playful thing like that. But Abrams said, No, no. Nobody can read that. Nobody will ever get that and I don’t know why you want to do that and I don’t want that and it can’t be that way. And I said, I’m sorry, it can’t be any other way but that way. And Lynn Nesbitt, who was my agent at the time, in essence she and her colleague suggested to me that I was being a fool, but I think I was a fool for allowing them to suggest that to me and for taking their counsel, but did as told and Abrams had his way with it and I always have been displeased. When I’ve told the story, I think I’ve told it once or twice, I told it to one of my children once, and that child said, Gee Dad, now that you’ve got a chance to do it your own way, do it your own way, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I thought about doing it when I redid Capote and I couldn’t. My heart wasn’t in it anymore. I just couldn’t. No, that’s an unsatisfactory way of making the statement. The fact of the matter is I couldn’t do it. Mechanically I couldn’t do it. Whatever intricacy then obtained in the making of that device required of me a kind of faith I no longer had.
I want to talk about the dualities you mentioned in relation to fear restricting you as a writer. Can you not get Gordon Lish the writer out of the room and leave the manuscript with Gordon Lish the editor? Is it impossible for you to achieve that objectivity?
I can’t do for myself what I have done for others. And I say with some satisfaction I’ve done some remarkable things for others.
And you don’t trust anyone else to do for you?
I would be willing, perhaps, to do so if someone would volunteer but nobody really ever has.
Have you asked or are you expecting a knock on the door?
Well, I always knocked on doors. I knocked the house down. I was unwilling to get out of the picture. I had to have it right, my idea of right. Otherwise I couldn’t put my name on that contract as it were. And I no longer have that kind of ferocity.
In your short story, “How To Write A Novel” from What I Know So Far, you say to buy the first one of whatever it is because the maker of it is never going to knock himself out like that again. And yet you’re rewriting your previously published books. So, should I believe you now or should I believe you then?
Don’t believe me anytime, Rob. Don’t believe me anytime. Don’t believe me anytime. I don’t think I’m worth believing. There’s no profit in believing me. The only thing you can get from it or not get from it is the pleasure of the time, the savor of the time. Because I’m a frightened man, because I’m essentially a weasel, because I’m essentially a swindler, because I’m a wheedler, because I’m always looking for a way to escape, I’m not reliable. I’m not trustworthy. I would make that claim of myself with anything I say but in my life, in my relations I’ve proved remarkably reliable. A good old loyal dog. I would never leave a wife. I’ve been left by wives. I would never leave a friend. I’ve been left by friends. So, reliable in human relations curiously but not reliable in what I say. Language, for me, is something that belongs to other people. In the same way I feel that my body represents a bad judgment made on me. I should’ve looked like Alan Ladd. That was the notion I had as a kid. I should’ve looked like Alan Ladd. That would’ve been fair. That would’ve been just it seems to me. I should’ve been able to hit a baseball. I should’ve been able to knock them down the way Joe Louis could knock them down. That’s the sense of sufficiency I have. I’m an American boy like that and I think we’re all American boys like that. My complaint is, that when it comes to language, because of the kind of circumstances I came from, where English was not really the language that was exquisitely managed in the household, everything in me, always, everything in me is an effort to grab onto what I feel I was deprived of. I can reduce it to the personification of Miss McEvoy who is really Miss Donnelly in Peru. There really was a teacher I had named Miss McEvoy who was everything I understood Americans to be. She looked like Wallace Stevens’ wife on the fifty cent piece and she sounded like Miss McEvoy and she had the elocution of Miss McEvoy and she had the enunciation of Miss McEvoy and she had the syntax of Miss McEvoy and all of that. And because I feel myself, when I’m with the language, concerned only with how the language manifests itself through the conduit of Gordon Lish, I’m indifferent entirely to what’s said. I don’t even know what I’m saying half the time. I’m only saying it for the sake of saying it, for the sake of saying something, hoping that I can keep talking until I can get out of there safely, without somebody capturing me, without somebody seizing me by the throat. You know, there’s a story by Philip Roth that deserves reading. It’s called “On The Air.” He never quite finished it, I don’t believe. And that tale concerns the terror of the Jew who’s captured by the non-Jew, and all of whose Jewishness is really the consideration at hand. We got you now. You can’t escape. We’re going to measure your balls now. At a certain point he crosses the George Washington Bridge. He thinks he has an engagement with Einstein at Princeton. Einstein’s become the Jewish answer man. He feels there’s an insufficiency of Jews on radio. Einstein’s the smartest guy in the world. The Jews will have an answer man. So he’s on his way to meet with Einstein to produce this program and never makes it. On the way, he’s captured and dragged into a back room somewhere and he’s made to have his testicles weighed to see if they measure up. Now I’m telling you, this is choice. It must be, in every Jew’s terror, that this will be his destiny, that this will be fate. Somehow the most intimate part of himself will be measured against other men and found wanting. See? That’s the thing. And whether it has any kind of reality to it, whether it has anything other than just simply phantasm to it, is not the point. The phantasm is good enough for me. I’ve been that way all my life. All my life. And language would be the domain in which I would fear myself most likely to be exposed. I have seen myself on television and I’ll make some error. I’ll say something either factually wrong or rhetorically wrong or grammatically wrong and even be corrected or I’ll stop myself and make the correction or the interviewer corrects me. I’m always at the precipice of being convicted.
How do you rationalize the difference between your feelings of responsibility for the spoken word and the written word? What’s the difference between your feeling for the spoken word and your feeling for the written word?
Well, I’m better defended in the latter case. I’ll answer your question in a moment. There’s an observation I have that interests me a lot and I’ve only made it recently about myself. I walk along the sidewalk always, certainly in New York where the sidewalks are canted so that the rain runs off into the street. I try always to hold to the higher ground so I will, as I pass people, appear to myself to be taller than I am so I will always seek to walk inside towards the storefronts. When I was in San Francisco recently I felt how awful it was to be deprived of that advantage because the sidewalks weren’t canted in the same way so that you were often, likely, on the same footing as everybody else and I didn’t like that. I wanted a little advantage for what I felt was my insufficiency. And while I was thinking about that, as I was making my way, I was uncertain about where I was going. I would stop and ask people and, the most curious thing, I’m invariably smaller than the persons I’m asking, irrespective of gender, and I imagine myself as a mild and gentle and pacific man but invariably, and this has been true all of my life, I felt on the occasion of coming up to somebody to ask the question, that I’m somehow dangerous. That they perceive me as dangerous and that I have to, in the asking of the question, somehow give them to understand they are not to interpret my behavior as dangerous. And when I had this notion of myself, when I suddenly realized something about myself, because I’m not, despite evidence to the contrary, evidence you may take to the contrary, I’m not an introspective person at all. I don’t sit around thinking about myself I’m not competent. I would rather hide from myself than think about myself so this came to me as really news. Wow! Why do I always think I’m dangerous when I’m a little guy? And I do think of myself as somehow dangerous to others. I don’t doubt that it’s because of the enormous aggression within me or aggressivity within me.
But you’re not bothered by that perception at all. Aren’t you in a sense flattered that others would see you as dangerous?
Yes. I’m not so sure other people see me as dangerous. I see myself as being dangerous and trying to, in the moment of contact, disabuse them of the notion that I’m dangerous but really, probably, as you quite rightly surmised, relishing that this is an issue, relishing the prospect of this being an issue. And I probably have presented myself that way all whole life long. It’s probably what got me into the jams I’ve gotten into in my life, gotten me the reputation I’ve got. Probably certainly what’s gotten me able to be pals with certain persons you wouldn’t think a New York Jewboy would end up being pals with. Probably because I’ve projected an air of a certain danger or recklessness or willingness to cross certain lines. Now, I must beg you to believe, nothing in others is more terrifying to me, but I used to ride with guys like this. I was a wrangler in Tucson. I used to ride with whacked guys who didn’t use saddles and didn’t use regular tack and hit the horses with sticks and didn’t come from Wyoming. They came from Long Island and couldn’t wait to hurt somebody. I seem to have, in me, by reason of my sense of being tiny, of being small, of being insufficiently large for the case, an awful lot of violence and hence my absolute devotion to Blood Meridian as the supreme American text.
Let’s go back. You seem to be able to let the spoken word fall where it may yet you’re extremely careful with the printed word.
I’m careful with the spoken word, too. I’m just very good at this. You’ve got to understand, man, you’re talking to somebody who gets up once a week and talks for eight hours non-stop and sometimes does it three or four days in a row so either I’m very good at it or I think I’m very good at it.
You don’t ever find out what you think when you’ve heard yourself say it?
I would like to. I would like to. I’d like to say I’m going instead of I’m coming. I’d like to call out the wrong woman’s name. I tell you this. I didn’t even surprise myself when I was captured the first time and put in a nut house. I must’ve been about sixteen, seventeen. I was as gone as I think I’m going to get but nothing I did really surprised me and I ended up thinking it was just more theater. I ended up thinking even the craziness was feigned and what got me locked up in manacles and chains in Florida and kept on bread and water for two weeks and that kind of thing, in serious lockup, I think it was all an act. I don’t think I surprised myself with anything. I think I was pretending. I think I’ve been pretending for as long as I can remember. Nothing I say to you, as much as I would like to give it the appearance of vehemence and immediacy, has surprised me. I may be completely transparent to others and you may be sitting and surmising what I’m up to, maybe saying, I can read this guy through and through and how come he can’t read these conclusions that I come to, but I don’t know that I’m escaping. I don’t know that I’m ever going to elude the surmise or elude capture as it were. I can’t speak to that. It’s not within my power to know but I get the sense, that’s all I require, that, Gee, I got through with that. I got through with that without making a shambles of things, without delivering myself up to some kind of deep, deep, deep shame, or I preempted the shame. I preempted the moment. I delivered myself to shame before that person could deliver me to shame, before that person could say, Hey, you don’t make it. You’re not in yet. Before that person could say, Are you there, I said, I’m probably not there. So that suffices for me. I suppose, with how I’m read, both on the page and how I’m read as an editor, and how I’m read as a publisher, and how I’m read as a teacher, it’s that the surmise that I think that I’ve, in an approximate kind of way, produced for you today, isn’t the surmise that’s mainly made about me. I’m willing to take the rap for what I think my crimes have been, and I think I certainly have committed crimes, but I’m not infrequently, I think rather more to the point, as paranoiacally as I can, the view of me that’s posited as the authoritative view, the thing just doesn’t square with reality at all. And I don’t think it’s got by people that have ever had any kind of touch with me at all.
But you like your reputation.
I’ve got to like it. It’s what I’m stuck with.
You don’t have to like it.
I’ve come to like it. I’ve come to like it, I suppose. I’ve even come to like the price I’ve paid for it.
Let me see if I can steer you back by using a different course. You would never hand over Chinese and allow me to edit it.
No, I wouldn’t. You got me, man.
But these words now are your words and, in a sense, I will be editing you. What’s the difference?
What’s the difference? What is the difference? First rate question, first rate question because I wouldn’t cede to you, or anyone else, the authority to revise Chinese or any of my work. I won’t even let you look at it. I don’t even want you to fucking look at the goddamn thing until I fix it. I write all kinds of insane letters trying to govern the ungovernable. My God, man, please, please, I’m only giving this to you now in case the plane goes down. I don’t even want that record in place because I have my pride, my pride and my vanity. Probably because my valorizing of this episode in speech is very different from my valorizing of the other. That’s plain to see. I don’t know what you’re going to make of this, this exchange between us, but whatever you make out of it, the very best you can make out of it, it will have been a collaborative effort.
Does the fact that this is a collaboration absolve you of a certain responsibility?
That’s it. That’s the word. That’s the word. That’s the word, man. That’s the word. See, I wrote about twenty books before Capote, under other names, and as long as it was under another name I didn’t give a shit what I’d done, what kinds of errors might be in place. I never have looked back. And I did a lot of work under other people’s names, too, when they got fame for it, a lot of fame for it, and I, even in those instances, and there’s one instance in which I don’t think I could conceivably have labored with a more finely grained tooth comb, that’s the expression, with more fine grained attention than I did. We were revising and revising and revising it over and over again for each edition, taking such pains with every utterance that came out of my mouth in that writer’s name. I, nevertheless, am willing to say, although I have acknowledged that I could not edit myself as successfully as I could edit somebody else, or revise myself as successfully as I could revise somebody else, that unless my marriage to the inviolate center of myself as it comes into play by reason of my written utterance, that’s to be in touch with the only God I’m ever in touch with. It’s the only thing, in all of my experience, that’s even perspectively sacred.
But there’s a sanctity that you bestow on the printed word, and in the case of at least two of your works, soon to be all of your works, the printed word changes. I guess what I’m asking for is un-giveable, even if you have the desire. You’ve published dick books and brain books but the separation seems to be caused only by time. Why is Epigraph, after twenty-nine tries, still a dick book? When does it become a brain book? When did Capote become a brain book?
Time’s the big fucker, man, and these designations we’re offering as if they are polarities, dick and brain, really aren’t, as both of us know.
Is time the only thing that can provide the distance?
No, no. I don’t think so. I think intellect has got a lot to do with it. There are some people who are smart. If I were to speak of my friends, DeLillo and Ozick, they’re both really fucking smart, really smart, you know. I would never make this claim. I’m always prepared to argue with my students that smarts has nothing to do with it. That the mind can, in fact, be in your way, but as I measure, after the fact, my life, because I see my life after the fact now, those persons that have done nobly and really work with respect to the page, given that polarity that has been invoked, dick books and mind books, they’re all smart. The ones I have named are really fucking smart. They’re sure as hell smarter than I am. I don’t like having to concede that. I would rather think that cleverness, I would rather think that devotion would do, stamina would do, that desire would do. I don’t want to be seen as good and smart. I’d rather be seen as the supreme swindler. I’d rather be seen as the grand artificer.
Then you’ve pretty much got what you want then, haven’t you?
Well, you’re very genial to offer that observation. From your mouth to God’s ears even though God doesn’t exist for me, Rob. You make me grin. But I don’t, really. You see, the people I named, they could get that thing down that I told you I couldn’t get down. They could get anything down. As I read through DeLillo’s Underworld, I came again and again to the altogether unpleasant recognition that this guy can do things I can’t even imagine getting words around. There’s a moment in his book when he’s writing about the major dump out on Staten Island, and it’s just a bit. I remember it exactly in the manuscript because I was reading the thing and I said, I’m not going to call. I’m not going to call him until I finish the whole damn thing, you know. It was deep in where he’s offering you up the behavior of some sea gulls over the dump as they are suddenly fastened in the air and he follows the word, “regardful, ready to fly.” Now, I couldn’t do that. First of all, I couldn’t look at seagulls moving anywhere, in any circumstance, even imagined seagulls, and render them. I couldn’t give you the sense of a seagull and I couldn’t give you that sense of a seagull as it comes to its pause and then begins to fly again with the word “regardful.” That kind of looking about that one sees in the seagull’s behavior. That word “regardful” would never ever be rendered to me. I could seek its deliverance the rest of my days and would never get it because I could never study the object with the form of attention required to produce the word “regardful” from it. I could never get it. That’s not a matter of character because I’ve got character in spades. I think I do. I’m not chicken shit. I’ve never walked away from a fight. I’m willing to stand up to any fucking thing, really man, I am, to be killed on it. I believe in the writing of a book and signing your own death warrant. That’s how it should be if it’s to be a proper book. But DeLillo can get that “regardful” because I think he’s got an intellectual power. He’s got mind in amplitude I’m never going to have. I can say the same about certain other parties including McCarthy. And I feel so damned deprived on account of it. I used to pal around with James D. Watson, the double helix guy, and I’ve known one or two really pretty smart cookies in my life and it’s okay to be around Watson, or people like Bloom. There are people like Bloom who can start reciting all of Murphy to you, backwards. Bloom can recite all of Murphy to you. I mean, you want Beckett? Bloom can give it to you out of his head. I’ve never seen a mind work faster than James D. Watson’s mind. Or Neal Cassady. Cassady could talk around seven different things at the same time and give each one its due. One’s a scientist, one’s a critic and one’s just a guy on the street, you know, but DeLillo and Ozick and Brodkey. These are unforgivable. They’re writers and they bring to the task of writing an amplitude of intellect.
Don’t you have an appreciation for them, as writers, if for no other reason but that they can do things that you can’t as a writer?
They should be there as my models, as what I posit as the heroic, because I’m of the same category. Is that what you’re saying?
No, only if you need to render a seagull should you hold them up as models.
But I don’t need to render a seagull. Who needs a seagull? I want to write about what’s in my heart and what’s inside me. I don’t want a seagull. Seagulls are in the world. Anybody can look at it. Anybody could look at it, but you see, he could’ve looked at my shit, any of those persons named could’ve looked at my shit, whatever my interior shit is, and rendered it. You see, that’s the thing. They could do a better job. They could deliver that moment, that glance that I took, that peek I had, when I looked on the un-peekable, the un-lookable, when I looked at Barbara Lish when she was in that condition, in that circumstance I described to you, and they would get it out. They would get all of it.
No. They can’t be more Gordon Lish than Gordon Lish.
I would like to think they wouldn’t have seen it in the first place. I would like to think they would’ve seen something an instant later, an instant before and not seen the very thing that I saw.
Because you want that moment for yourself.
That’s right. That’s right.
Didn’t you remark that Epigraph was a book of a man driven insane by grief? Or am I misquoting?
I don’t have a problem with that. Is he driven insane by grief? He’s ultimately a swindler. I’ll stay with that.
He’s a swindler early on.
He ends a swindler. He seems to become more and more revealed as he speaks. He seems to have removed a certain number of veils but I think he remains quite wonderfully clothed. He’s shrewd to the end. But I don’t think I can even read it now. The only true thing in that book, the only true thing in that book, honest to Pete, Rob, I didn’t even say and that’s Nietzsche at the very end of it. That’s the only true damn thing in there and that’s the last page in the book.
There seems to be a falling off though and by calling him ultimately a swindler suggests the man is in control. Don’t you have to be in control to be a swindler? The narrator of Epigraph comes apart in the same way the narrator of Dear Mr. Capote comes apart but you’re saying that in Epigraph it’s a contrivance?
Yes. Don’t you think that control is false? That the equivalency between control and fraudulence is apt? What you want, we’re talking now about the others, saying, not with a withering measure, Are you in yet? We want the other, driven quite beside herself in fulfillment of what it is that’s being offered, so that one wants the reader somehow beside himself in response to one’s manipulations but one is forever manipulating. One’s probably never going to be in enough, probably isn’t even in to begin with, is always trying to develop the apparition of being in, the appearance of being in, putting something in the place of what, if you put it in, you may never be able to bring back out again. I’m a guy who could get in a car with Cassady and drive like a lunatic, but get to the destination. Some people get in the car and they don’t ever get out. You know what I’m saying? I want to get where I’m going. I don’t want to lose myself along the way. I haven’t gotten lost yet and I’m almost sixty-three. I understand the authority of that exultation, Let’s get lost. I understand the beauty of that, the exorbitance of that. I would posit this as the sublime for all of my students but would I ever take myself there into it? No, no. I want to get there.
So the narrator of Epigraph doesn’t lose his way? The narrator of Epigraph is as much in control at the end of the novel as he is at the beginning?
What about the narrator of Dear Mr. Capote?
Ditto, ditto. You know, the narrator being myself. I mean, after all, I’m Davie.
But don’t you need a separation between narrator and author?
If I offer the separation then yes, he lost himself more, he loses himself more. You know, Peru ends with that kind of moment, that moment when he’s seeking escape from all of this and calls out about the cab driver and all of that. Though you may have seen a very bad version of that thing. It pains me. That novel, it seems to me, as I read it now, seems to be a very homosexual novel. That seems to me to be really altogether about that, about the speaker’s falling into the colored man, falling into the taxi driver. I think it’s all really about that. As I read the book now it seems to be quite absolutely about these matters but he nevertheless remembers, you know, his father’s telephone number. He’s able to produce his father’s telephone number. He hasn’t forgotten. See? This would be very like the revision I want to insist upon. I’m going to get it back for another run through because I see now that the number comes up twice. I must’ve inserted that when I did the paperback version of it because the number wasn’t there at all in the original version, I do believe. It only comes up in the very end so now the right number comes up twice before: Lackawanna 4-1810. The last time the number appears it ought to be wrong and I can still catch that. It ought to be wrong.
So Peru’s not rewritten yet?
Not yet. I just got it from the exchange we had right now. I have revised it but I’m waiting for the third pass to come back to me, and by Christ, the last time that number is uttered it ought to be wrong. It ought to be wrong. Shit, I got to make two changes in that thing because I also want to add a name to the dedication. I’ve fallen in love, you see.
But now you’ve proven yourself wrong because you said you never surprise yourself.
Yes, I just did now. But you furnished the occasion for it. I never would’ve thought of it had we not been talking. You’re my editor. I never would’ve had the idea.
I don’t want to try to equate Peru and Epigraph and Dear Mr. Capote with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying but in that novel Dari loses control, and he is, in effect, the narrator of that book.
I tried to read that book recently, about a summer ago.
The circumstances are not dissimilar. Granted, there are more voices, but the progression is similar and Dari does lose his sanity by the end. He loses control. He’s no longer being manipulative. In my mind, he loses control of his rational being when his family turns on him at the graveyard and sends him off to the asylum. They get rid of him to save the money for the burned barn and it’s that betrayal that causes him to lose control, but you’re telling me that the narrator of Peru and the narrator of Epigraph and the narrator of Dear Mr. Capote are still as in control at the end of those novels as they are at the beginning and so therefore they do not have that moment of loss that Dari experiences.
They are because I am. They are because I am. And I’ve tried to get rid of my mind.
I’m still surprised that you don’t insist on more separation between author and character.
I’d be a fraud.
How is that different from putting the words “a novel” on the title page?
None of this, really, is reportable fact. My God, none of this is reportable fact. Certainly I’m making no effort at all in the reading of these things, after the point of composition, in the reading of them, to find some kind of moral plane different for myself than I would find for the narrator. I mean, I’m prepared to answer for the narrator as if l were. I recall a time when Bellow was asked about Augie March in relation to Reaganomics. He was asked the question in some interview, How would Augie March behave during the Reagan period in relation to Reaganomics? And he made a reply as if what was ink on paper somehow existed as an authentic being that would have an authentically stateable response to conditions. I thought nothing could be more preposterous, nothing could be more ridiculous, but I didn’t invent Augie March. I only invented a version of Gordon Lish and I can tell you exactly how Gordon Lish would feel in any circumstance and I don’t want to make the claim that there’s any kind of distance, any real distance, any stateable distance, between myself and the name I’m using for myself in my books.
But you see the problem I have. I don’t see how claiming a separation between author and narrator is any more fraudulent than putting the words “a novel” on the title page in order to present it as a work of fiction.
There are certain frauds one is more comfortable with than others. I think it was becoming sort of modish not to make a designation of any kind when I started to put out these books. Is it still in the mode? I don’t know. I know in ’84 with Capote I had the sense that it was getting to be modish to leave off a designation and I always work against the mode, whatever the mode is.
Were all previous twenty-eight versions of Epigraph, even though no others were epistolary, were all twenty-eight versions what could be described as a type of monologue?
Yes. Oh, absolutely. That would be true. That would be true.
Is the monologue a congenial form?
You’re discovering my only form, I think. It better be congenial.
Are you capable of writing another type of novel?
Oh, I have, under other names. A standard kind of novel? Third person and all that?
Yes, in another point of view. At this moment.
Oh, now? Under my own name? I wouldn’t in a million years, wouldn’t in a million years. The only novel I’ve got under my own name that presumably doesn’t have me as a fixture in it is the novel Extravaganza which I will presently revise, I suppose. But that novel’s just a stunt. It’s a bunch of jokes. But I don’t think I could, Rob. I’ve started several just as Cynthia Ozick has lately started a book in the first person and has some misgivings about a book in the first person. I would start a book in some other point of view. There are many, many points of view aside from the ones routinely cited. There are all kinds of ways of producing once removed and once removed. There are all kinds of tricks but the only point I want to make is that I rather imagine that, in due course, I would think better of it, having made my way into the text feeling that somehow I was hobbling myself and that it’s not worth the hobbling. Just to be able to point to a book that was rendered by reason of another kind of device wouldn’t be worth the price in not getting far enough in.
So it’s a moot question. It doesn’t matter whether the monologue is a congenial form. It’s your form.
I’m my object. I’m my character. I’ve got no other. I don’t believe in any other.
(This interview was first published in New Orleans Review, Issue 23.1, 1997.)