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Fall 1996
Volume 1, Number 1

Very Bountiful Bones
An Interview with William Kennedy by Tom Smith

William Kennedy was born in Albany, New York, on January 16, 1928, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers and graduated from Siena College in 1949. After a two-year stint in the U. S. Army in the U.S.A. and Germany (1950-52), working on army newspapers, Kennedy became a reporter in Albany, and later in Miami, Florida, and Puerto Rico, where he became the founding managing editor of the San Juan Star, the English daily, in 1959. His journalistic assignments included sports, politics, literature, and especially film criticism which led him to co-author the film The Cotton Club with director Francis Ford Coppola in 1984. He also wrote the screenplay for his own novel Ironweed, filmed in 1987 in Albany under the direction of Hector Babenco. In 1961 Kennedy gave up journalism to write serious fiction and has since taught creative writing at Cornell University (1982-83) and the University at Albany, SUNY, where he is currently Professor of English.

After Kennedy was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1983, he founded and directed the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for Ironweed and the New York Governor's Arts Award, both in 1984. Kennedy lives with his wife, Dana, a former professional dancer, in Averill Park, near Albany. They have two daughters, Dana and Katherine, and a son, Brendan.

Written after The Ink Truck (1969), Kennedy's acclaimed "Albany Cycle" of novels includes Legs (1975), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), Ironweed (1983), Quinn's Book (1988), and Very Old Bones (1992). His non-fiction works include O Albany! (1984), and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, a collection of essays, memoirs, reviews, and reportage, scheduled for publication in 1993. With his son Brendan he has co-authored two children's books, Charlie Malarkey and The Belly Button Machine (1986) and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (forthcoming).

I interviewed my good friend William Kennedy on a cool night in Albany at the time of the publication of Very Old Bones in the spring of 1992. Our unrehearsed, spontaneous conversation (one of many) took place while we sat before a crackling fire in the much-used party room of Kennedy's home in Averill Park, NY, a short distance form his native, mythic Albany. Kennedy's world-class pool table stood in the background with the spirit of Billy Phelan hovering close by.

Smith: Bill, Very Old Bones is your sixth novel, the fifth novel in what's called "The Albany Cycle" by this time. Now that Very Old Bones is launched to the world, do you look upon it as a kind of fulfillment or perhaps even a culmination of one mighty torrent of your fiction, the whole sage of the Phelans and the Quinns of Albany and all the things that get embraced in those families? Is there something, perhaps not finality, but is there some kind of fulfillment or culmination that Very Old Bones represents?

Kennedy: There's a completion in a certain sense that at the end of Bones, Orson is speculating on the future and he says, "We're not long for this house." You know, how long can Peter, his father, live, and then I'll be out of here, God knows what's going to happen to me, and so on. And that really brings to an end that particular family coherence that began for me back in 1959, which was when I created the Phelans for the first time. That first book was The Angels and the Sparrows and Bones is an extension of it. Certain elements were already present there, certain plot lines, and characters. Francis was there, Molly was there under a different name, Sarah was there, and the parents were there under different guises. That family cohesion was there from the beginning, and it seemed to me a strength on which I drew as I created all these various Phelans, and also the spinoffs from them, the Quinns, and Billy's life, and Francis's outlaw life and so on. George Quinn's life is still to be told, as is Danny Quinn's, but those first Phelans were a nucleus around which I could invent freely, and with great variety, the kind of life I had seen and observed but hadn't ever penetrated very seriously in any other way except through fiction. Even personally not knowing the profound insides of my family. I never got that close to them. We were always a close family but to talk about history or ancestors or what was the influence of your mother or grandmother, etc., etc. I didn't have that, and certainly I never could write about it in journalism or essays of any sort, or biographies or autobiography. Autobiography is unthinkable except as a casual thing in O Albany!. But this way, this continuity of family, was a way of looking at something important, and in Bones, I came to an ancestral influence that seemed to be at the heart of a lot of things I knew about people of this kind.

Smith: Now you're talking about the Malachi episode back in the nineteenth century, the prehistory of the Phelans of Colonie Street.

Kennedy: Right, yes. You know there are episodes in history in Ireland that are parallel to the Malachi story and there's also a certain element that is ongoing in Irish history the relationship with the church, and the superstitions, and the profound ignorant behavior of some people; and I saw how it could have affected subsequent lives. That was central to me in the culmination of this book.

Smith: I want to go back after a while to some of those ancestral roots, both in the novel and also the whole cycle, but when Very Old Bones ends, I mean in the final page in 1958, there are still Phelans and Quinns alive, so we can't talk about absolute finality, which is not to say that you are going to write a sequel to it tomorrow. But not only is Billy Phelan still alive, but the principal narrator and focal character of Very Old Bones, a new character in the cycle, Orson Purcell, Peter Phelan's bastard son, is still very much alive, too. Now is there some significance that this whatever it is, fulfilling or culminating novel, is told mostly by a bastard son of the Phelans?

Kennedy: That's an evolutionary event. I started to tell it through Daniel Quinn who, in a certain sense, being the son of George Quinn and Peg, was somewhat akin to myself. And I could not make that work. I felt that that was artificial. I was full of constraint. I find it very difficult to invent out of my own personal life. But when I was able to find parallel figures in my own acquaintances who could be coalesced into a single character and who would behave quite differently from me, have experiences quite different from my own, then I was able to see a narrator and hear a narrator and believe a narrator. Until then I couldn't. I didn't believe it. Whenever I was going to use a parallel to my own life, as Daniel Quinn, if I tried to invent outside of my own experience, and if I reached too far, I would say, "That can't happen. I would never do that. Danny Quinn would never do that." But of course, Danny Quinn very well might do such a thing and it's a fallacy that autobiographical fiction is really commonplace, for it isn't really. I think there must be an awful lot of writers like me. I don't believe Hemingway was like his prototypes, his principal characters, the Jake Barneses. I think that he may have been closer to them than I am to mine, but he had to invent, he had to find a way to leap out of his own skin. And that's in a certain way what I did when I found Orson. Orson was able to go crazy and be outlandish and have experiences that were really very, very far afield of my own. His World War II experiences, his whole experience with the Nazis in Germany, was very much different from what I was ever involved in. But, I knew about people who had comparable experience, and I was able to fuse all that. The principle I suppose is that you can't lie, and the lie is the contravention of your own self and your own capacity. And that contravention would be a lie; whereas if you invent this wild man, then anything is possible and it's not a lie anymore.

Smith: Well, you've actually anticipated and really gone a long way toward answering my next question on the strategy, the literary strategy of having a bastard and a mad man tell this enormously complicated chronicle of Very Old Bones; and I suppose with the equal emphasis on the bastard and the madman the kind of liberating aspect and the different kind of vision that the Phelan and the Quinn saga would get from someone who was a bastard and someone who goes crazy right in the middle of the novel, as a matter of fact.

Kennedy: Well, Orson was capable of it and, because he was a bastard he had far more interest (than Quinn) in this family that he chose to acquire. And so instead of alienating himself from it because of his bastardy, he chose, perhaps involuntarily, but maybe it wasn't so involuntary, to go crazy in New York and know that the chances were he'd wind up in Albany, being cared for by his aunts and uncles and so on. And so maybe that drive to madness was to find an honorable way to move into the family's life and then chronicle it, and chronicle his own life as well. Quinn's Book was comparable to Bones in the sense that Quinn was looking back from an advanced age to his childhood and young manhood, whereas Orson is looking, not only at himself, but at everybody around him, trying to comprehend, and put into some profound family focus, what really was the underpinning behavior of this peculiar family. And he discovers Malachi, although it's too easy to explain it away with just Malachi. But you also have Malachi's influence on a woman as strong-minded as the mother of this family, Kathryn Phelan, a matriarch of great, great strength and will. And however wrong-headed she became in the subsequent years, the foundation of her beliefs, and the beliefs she imposed on this family, were rigorously moral and comprehensible. It's just that as time moved along, they became corrupting. They didn't change with the times, and it is this inflexibility that we see in the church today in terms of abortion, birth control, celibacy of priests and so on. The disintegration of the church is before us all the time because of these things. That wasn't really why I was writing not to have a parallel to the church but just to know that these strong-willed people who are influenced by these incredibly powerful historical events, are moral in themselves too. You know, they are not villainous people.

Smith: I want to get back to that soon about the whole way that Irish-American Catholicism is part of this mighty torrent of your work, as I put it before, but I still want to talk a little bit about the character of Orson in terms of that tradition. Where did that character come from quite apart from the literary strategy of having the bastard and the madman tell this story which you talked about? In the mythology of the Phelans and the Quinns as you gestated them over the years, from 1959 on, was the character Orson Purcell lurking somewhere? Where did that character really come from?

Kennedy: When I started to write this book I had him as a cousin who was considered, as George Quinn calls him, a floo-doo, whatever that means. He was crazy in some way. I had him behaving in a very negative way, burglarizing the family home after it's closed down, stealing things he felt he either should have or could profit from. I had him stealing one of his father's paintings that was in the house.

Smith: Yes, Peter Phelan, his father is Francis's younger brother and the artist who creates the Malachi suite, which is very much a part of Very Old Bones.

Kennedy: That version of Orson existed in several early drafts when Danny Quinn was telling the story. But then I began to have this trouble trying to create Quinn, because he didn't have the experience Orson had. Orson was wilder. Orson was known as a madman, and he looked to be a likely candidate for a narrator, a very smart guy who was a navel-gazer of a kind, but who also had a sense of history and had this profound interest in the family. It didn't seem profound at first glance, but as time went on he became more interesting to me; and I rejected the idea of him being this second-rate cousin who's really a cheap burglar and winds up in a kind of scandalous moment at the end of the book with a woman and the police. It was a terrible ending for Orson, even though it was the kind of life he was living. So I chose not to go in that direction, for as Orson began to talk, he made sense. He came to see Billy Phelan, talked to Billy, heard Billy confess things to him; and then he began to confess himself, for he trusted Billy in a way he had never before trusted anybody. So he tells Billy his story about Germany, and his cheating at cards, and his magicianship, and so on. I felt Orson had evolved into a much more interesting character than the sleazeball, lost, crazy-headed, sex-crazed cousin he was originally.

Smith: It's very significant that, in addition to being a bastard and madman, he's also a magician. Magic as practiced, and as metaphor, figures very prominently in your work in the Albany Cycle, certainly in Ironweed and Billy Phelan and Quinn's Book, and very much so, in many ways, in Very Old Bones. And I'm thinking of Orson, his talent as a magician and also well the whole phenomenon of the dark world of witchcraft and things like that, that go back in the Malachi episode in the 19th Century, that wonderful dramatic blasphemy that's part of that episode. Is this some kind of full circle?

Kennedy: I would think so. I think that magic has always been central to the Irish, from the Celts forward, the belief in the mythic life of people and birds and creature, on through to the miracles of the church, and the witchcraft trials. And magic is the basis for the church, the whole foundation of the life of Christ all those miracles walking on the water, and the loaves and the fishes multiplied, water into wine these wonderful, magical concepts that have galvanized the imagination of the entire world for two millenniums, and which have, as their foundation, the infusion into the minds of the children this belief that magic is possible, and miracles are real. You must believe in the Trinity, which you can't even explain. It's an anomaly, but don't try to fight it, just believe it. That was definitely in my makeup, and also I had a magician's kit, and I read Mandrake the Magician when I was a kid, and I always wanted to be able to fool people, but never got the hang of it. Then later I got to know about card thieves, which is magic of another order.

Smith: There's a kind of paradox in the Irish tradition that I think is crystallized in your novels, and particularly Very Old Bones, perhaps as dramatically as anywhere. On the one hand, this is how James Joyce referred to the Irish, the most priest-led race in Europe, and, by extension, the world, and tremendously under the sway of the imperatives of the church, the theology of the church, the strictures of the church. On the one hand, there are the imperatives, the theology, the strictures of the church and the official mysteries of Catholicism, while on the other hand, there is the great tradition of pagan magic. You put those things together very dramatically in the history of this family. And I wonder if that paradox is something you felt all along as you were gestating not only the grand design of the Phelan-Quinn-myth, but also maybe your own consciousness?

Kennedy: Well, I don't know about my own consciousness but I can see that the idea of putting the church and magic together is not anything except historical perception. The church put it together. When you read the Malleus Maleficarum: The Hammer of Witches, a book that was quite widely accepted by Popes and hierarchy of the church, and affected a great many lives, you can see that here was a belief that there were such things as witches, those pagan figures who worshiped Satan, yes, but God knows what else they worshiped. They were viewed as heretical, out to destroy the civilized world as the church tried to represent it, out to overthrow the priests, out to emasculate men, out to denigrate women. Everything evil that you could do to a society was being done by these witches, and the church ganged up on them, found a way to put them away, put witchcraft away to burn them, destroy them, crucify them, whatever they needed to do to maintain a grip on this utterly false front of legitimate miracle.

Smith: Wasn't there always a tension, an ironic discrepancy, between the miracles of the Church and that other kind of renegade "magic"?

Kennedy: Magic was everywhere in my life, legitimized and not. And both forms were absolutely fascinating. I discovered that these pagan rituals from the Middle Ages were still being carried out right up until the late 19th Century in Ireland, and probably in this country as well, so I just moved it all, in Very Old Bones, as I do with everything, to Albany. If it can happen there, it can happen here.

Smith: Time-present in Very Old Bones is 1958 and much of the action takes place in the 1953 to 1958 frame with significant episodes from earlier times. Is 1958 simply a very plausible, strategic date as far as the ages and the experiences of people in that particular family? Or, do you think that that is a kind of culminating time or at least symbolically so for that whole era?

Kennedy: Well, it was the year the Albany Senators baseball team went out of business.

Smith: Well, that's very significant.

Kennedy: It was there when these Phelans were coming into their, what is it, senectitude, is there such a word senectitude and they were just dying. Orson just happens to be privy to the final illumination of the line through his father, who is about to die almost any minute, but who has, through this great force of will, completed this suite of paintings, the Malachi suite, which has brought into focus all of the anomalies that he's been monitoring for so many years, that he was witness to when Francis came home but couldn't understand then; and, as he points out, Francis went to his grave not knowing why his sister and mother wouldn't let him come home. Francis probably assumed it was the bitterness over Katrina and such things, but without understanding what underpinned those things, and what was so profound in their motivation. I felt that at some point, in an arbitrary year, something had to happen. There's a certain logic that dictates how far you can go in time, and I think it had to follow on the heels of the Korean War, if I was going to use that experience with Orson where he goes apeshit in Germany, and then his marriage falls apart. How does it every come back together? And, if it does, under what circumstances? If Giselle does have a career, then she has to have time for a career. So five years is not unreasonable for her to extend herself in to the world of photography and then think, well maybe there is something else in life. And so her return is possible. Also, Molly's getting old, very old, Tommy's dead, Sarah's dead, the house is going to go up for sale pretty soon, Peter's going to die. Molly would just as soon live in Saratoga, especially if Orson doesn't stay in the house. So all of these things are cumulative, and you just finally decide on time logistically, such as, where is Billy? When did Broadway close down? That was a contributing factor, for Broadway was still around but fading very fast in 1958. I remember when I came back in 1963 it was practically gone. So it was on the wane in '58. I may have hastened its waning a little bit in the book, but, more or less, that was what was happening. It was vanishing.

Smith: In other words, the historical particularities of Albany, the real Albany, Albany history, intersect with the fictive trajectory of these characters and the family. But is there some, you know, even more external vision that you have of 1958, or the end of the 1950s, as really the historical and mythic end of a way of life, or of a mentality that those generations, particularly of Phelans and Quinns, seem to express; that perhaps you'd write a whole different kind of cycle of novels about the next, and the next generations that would go through the '60s and '70s and '80s?

Kennedy: Yes, that's true. I have thought about a novel in the 1960s that would have theological, ecclesiastical conflict and I'm not sure I'll ever write it, but I might. The church, after Vatican IIthose were extraordinary times for Catholics, and for most of the Irish and so I know this in hindsight now. And perhaps that was a contributing factor to Very Old Bones, knowing I couldn't come into the 1960s without acknowledging the hippie movement, and the open church, and the guitar-playing friars, and the folkies singing at mass, and mass turning into English, and Pope John XXIII, and everything that went with that, which was quite that opposite of the church in the time of Pius XII, his predecessor. And so in Very Old Bones, it is the time of Pius XII. He lived well beyond his years, in some kind of collusion with the Nazis, and on into our time of great liberation and demarcation. So that undoubtedly contributed. I'm not denying that. These things are conscious as you write. You know these historical periods. You know how far you can go, when you have to restrain yourself from getting into situations that you don't want to explain, that do not relate to the story at hand.

Smith: But you grew up in the historical period before Vatican II, and went to school in the 1930s and the 1940s, raised in a conventional working-class, middle-class family of Irish Catholics, went to a solidly-Catholic Christian Brothers Academy in Albany, and then to Siena College, long before there was any revolution in Catholic higher education.

Kennedy: They were Franciscans at Siena.

Smith: The Franciscans, right. Now, when you think of your particular environment at that time, and I'm talking about your education in the Henry Adams sense, what was the loss and gain of this? The Phelans and the Quinns were really haunted by a kind of morality, and a kind of logic of both belief and sin and punishment. I'm talking about things that might be free-floating, like the anti-intellectualism, the kind of goad to piety that we see in so many of the Phelan women particularly, that self-denial and also sexual repression, that had all kinds of consequences. Then there were, as you said before, mysteries and maybe the structure. What was the loss and gain of going through a very parochial education during the '30s and '40s?

Kennedy: Well, I think the gain is the acquisition of mythology, and of a theology that grounds you in every way, prepares you for any number of encounters with the rest of the world that does not happen to coincide with your belief. But if you understand Catholicism, it's not a big leap to Buddhism. If you're a believer in the communion of saints you're not uncomfortable with the Greek gods. They make a great deal of sense to you and you just put them, as Joseph Campbell did, into a wonderful fusion of human psyche, how it came to be. I feel that my education was restricted because of the emphasis on religion. I felt that they overdid it in high school and college with the philosophy, with the restricted philosophy of Catholic theologians and Catholic philosophers, and with the formalized imposition of religious dogma, even when you were a senior or junior in college; and it became really silly by that time. But it's not easy to shed those beliefs and those imposed attitudes that you've gotten in your head since you were in grammar school. From first grade on they sent us over to the nuns, and three times a week I was getting religious instructions. So from the time I was six years old until you know that's fifteen years untill I graduated from college, there was nothing but the imposed Catholic religion; and it took me a while to shed it and respect it. I respected it originally out of fear, but eventually out of appreciation. I came to understand the difference between the meaning of the church and its individual priests. I couldn't separate those in childhood. And as I grew older, the negative elements of it, the fear of sin, fear of hell, fear of damnation, this ridiculous purgatory, and limbo where you went after death if you were not baptized, for nobody who was not baptized could enter the kingdom of heaven these things I swore I was no going to impose on my children, for however much I admired the church, I did not want my kids to grow up with this medieval idea of the afterlife, and so I haven't. If they come to any kind of crisis concerning the afterlife it'll be of their own making, their own discoveries. They didn't have it shoved down their throat. If they have any guilt it'll by genuine guilt. They'll have to have done something to earn it, and not be plagued by the gratuitous guilt that's imposed on you, like original sin. I had an argument in Puerto Rico one night about everybody being guilty, and I really think I argued that that was the truth. I think I was somehow still reflecting my catechism at an advanced age; I must have been 26 or 27. Whatever guilt we have it's certainly not earned under those circumstances. It's a delusion that's imposed on you.

Smith: I wonder if that overdeveloped sense of guilt that involves formidable moral structures and moral imperatives is something that really does inform your novels? There's no doctrinaire aspect of it, but what people do really matters. I mean, they are haunted people, but on the other hand there is that sense that we are responsible, and we have to live with our consciences. I just wonder if that's part of this loss and gain.

Kennedy: Yes, I think when Francis comes home and we see him in his great conflict of loyalty to the family, and abandoning of family, and guilt over dropping the child, and the guilt over running away, he knows there's something here that really is important. There is a moral imperative that has been driving him all these years so that he keeps coming back to Albany; and yet he never can go home. And we see in Very Old Bones that he comes home to his mother's funeral and he's ready to, maybe, confront his wife, but he never does. Four years go by before he meets his son Billy Phelan, who bails him out of jail and then gives him the signal that it's time. And the drive to go home is still there, this internal machinery that has been imposing guilt on him for how long, and he says "without my guilt I have nothing," and he does go home and he assuages that guilt. It's his purgatory, that's what the book is based in, his purgatorio, and Dante's. And the whole feeling I had when I was writing it is that he has this kind of escalating series of encounters that parallel some of the language in Dante, which was a moral construction that helped me look at Francis's escalation into a time of paradise, his liberation from that guilt, his feeling that he had at last entered into a kind of paradise where he was able to forget, which is what happens when he crosses the rivers into paradise out of purgatory. He encounters two rivers at the end and he does begin to forget. He forgets the marks on Helen's soul, and he forgets the way Gerald looked in the grave, and he's at ease with himself in a certain way. A good many people thought that was because he had died. But he had not. He had just, in a certain sense, begun to live with himself.

Smith: I remember Humphrey Bogart once said, "I don't trust anybody that doesn't drink." I've modified that to mean, " I don't trust unfallen people," and that's what maybe this is all about, that whether it's Francis with his guilt, or everybody, all of us, we are all fallen people, and that sense of guilt, if it doesn't kill us, gives us a kinship with humanity. And I think that that's what is so powerful in your books and why the Albany Cycle is "moral" in a non-doctrinaire and non-pietistic way.

Kennedy: I suppose that it's a triumph for the church in a certain way. Even when you get out of it you don't get out of it.

Smith: When you were going through your own religious education, now this is in the late 1940s when you were at Siena College, what were you allowed to read as far as the sanctioned literature that had any impact, and then at the same time what was your underground literary life when you were a college student? Or had that not congealed yet?

Kennedy: No, it hadn't. It just was beginning to congeal as I was getting out of school and getting to know something about Hemingway and Faulkner. I had really a simplistic childhood education. In college they taught us Keats and Byron and Beowulf and Shakespeare, classic works, but I never got a modern writer. I never got a Hemingway story. I never got a Joyce story. Yeats was in the text, but we never got to Yeats.

Smith: Well, Joyce of course, at that time, was very much a heretical writer, and Yeats was a Protestant, even though they were these two great Irish giants.

Kennedy: They somehow found their way in to our literature book, but they weren't taught not to me. And there was also a Hemingway story in the textThe Undefeated, but we never got to it. So modern literature was a foreign country to me.

Smith: During the decade of the 1950s which, as we were saying, is also the decade of most of the action of Very Old Bones, in Albany, but after you finish Siena you became a newspaperman, not in Albany at first but in Glens Falls. Then you were a journalist in the Army, back to Albany and then on to Puerto Rico. You had really quite an education, after college, in the newspaper business and just about every aspect of journalism, isn't that right? How did that work as part of your education as a writer?

Kennedy: Well, just to correct the chronology, what happened was that I came out of college and went to work as a sports writer, went in for two years of writing Army sports, back for three and a half years to The Times Union as a general-assignment reporter and all sorts of things, including being weekend city editor, and then to Puerto Rico as a reporter/columnist, and I wound up as assistant managing editor. And all that happened in Puerto Rico in nine months. Then I went to the Miami Herald for about eight months and I made the decision there to quit journalism, went back to San Juan and free-lanced for a couple of years, became the Time-Life stringer, The New York Times tourism stringer, the Vision Magazine stringer and so on.

Smith: What years were these?

Kennedy: In 1956 I went to San Juan for the first time, then to Miami in '57, and back to San Juan later in '57 until 1963. In the summer of 1959 we started The San Juan Star, an English language daily in the bilingual community, and it's still going, and it's now owned by Scripps-Howard. Then it was owned by Gardner Cowles of Look Magazine, and I was the managing editor. Bill Dorvillier, who is still alive up in Woodstock, New Hampshire, was the editor, and Andy Viglucci, who is now the editor, was city editor; and the three of us really put the paper together with some business men who handled the business end of it. I had a good time for two years and then I quit, which was my swan song as a full-time journalist. I realized that after those years as managing editor, which is as high as I ever aspired, I wanted to return to fiction. The editor's job was an offer I couldn't refuse starting a newspaper from scratch and helping it grow in two years to 20,000 circulation, and be very influential. The editor won a Pulitzer Prize that first year for our editorial campaign against the church.

Smith: How appropriate and prophetic.

Kennedy: But I felt that that was as far as I wanted to go, and that if I didn't get out soon I'd get to the point of no return.

Smith: Now, while you were managing editor of The San Juan Star for two years that would have been 1959-61 during that particular period you had a momentous and significant encounter with your future as a fiction writer. That's when Saul Bellow came to Puerto Rico and you connected with him. You want to talk a little bit about what the nature of that significance was?

Kennedy: Well, I was working full-time as managing editor and, in our first year, I think it was 1960, Saul came down. We ran his picture in the paper and the story with it said he was accepting applications for a fiction-writing course he was going to teach. So, I said OK, I'll give it a whirl, and I submitted the novel that I was working on and he accepted me. And he also accepted a couple of my friends. And we all wound up seeing him individually at the faculty club. You went over and spent an hour shooting the breeze with him, and he would have read your chapter or your story, or maybe he'd read it then and have it fresh in his mind, and then you talked about it as long as was necessary. He was highly critical of the first things I showed him, but he had accepted me, and he felt that the chapters were substantial, even so, and were on the way to being something. He gave me this criticism, and it was enormously helpful, for when I gave him a revised version two weeks later, he said, this is terrific, this is publishable. And that was the first serious encounter I had with anyone in the literary world who understood what was really publishable. A lot of my friends were aspiring writers with literary educations but they did not know what the publishing world was, didn't know the dimensions of the critical apparatus of that world, or how it would view such a thing as this book. But Bellow did. Well, he was wrong, it turned out. That book, when I finished it, didn't get published. But it almost did and it got me an agent who tried for a couple of years to sell it and failed.

Smith: Now what specifically, what piece of fiction was it?

Kennedy: This book was The Angels and the Sparrows.

Smith: Which, as we said sometime ago, was really the first version of the creation of the Phelan family.

Kennedy: I hadn't written anything like that before, and it's where I really began to feel that I was working out of some kind of strength. I had never felt that when I was writing short stories about North Albany in the old days at The Times Union because I was such a beginner. And I never felt it in what I wrote about Puerto Rico from 1956 to 1960. None of those stories seemed to engage what was deepest in me, and what seemed to be worth reading. But this book did, and a lot of people, not only my friends, realized that this was good and probably publishable. But it wasn't, ultimately, and I remember Belle Sideman, who was the wife of the circulation director of Look Magazine, and who was an editor at Random Houseshe read the book, whose title at that point was, I think, One by One. And she said this is very good, but it's not going to get published. And the reason is that every time you read another chapter you know that that person's dead, or is going to die, or is useless, or forget about it. So it was a mistaken exercise in the construction of a novel. It wasn't a novel. It was a series of episodes, as is Very Old Bones, but in Bones, they're all integrated. The Angels just brushed against one another in each one of their stories, an amateur effort with a certain primitive power in the writing.

Smith: Now, these characters, were they called Phelan?

Kennedy: Yes, they were.

Smith: Which characters really survived, obviously transformed as your writing evolved, but which characters from that first, unpublished novel, really survived in the form that we know them in the Albany Cycle?

Kennedy: Well, Francis was there, but he wasn't married, and so he wasn't really Francis yet. Peter was totally different. Peter was bright but weak. Molly was there, but I think she was called Mary, which is Molly's real nameMolly is just a diminutive of Mary. Sarah was there, only I called her Sate and I think that was short for Satan. There's an allusion to that in Bones where she wants to be called Sate because her mother was called Kate. She wanted to be everything that her mother was. In Bones she's Sarah. Tommy was there, the moron. The father was very different, but the father is dead in Very Old Bones, long since. He dies in 1895, in a train accident. The mother, Kathryn, is more or less the same, but much more complex in Bones. The china closet episode was there.

Smith: Is that right?

Kennedy: Yes, but for totally different reasons. Molly's pregnancy, the taking of her husband's corpse, were both there. Molly's was a far more clandestine marriage than in Bones.

Smith: But the fact that that cast of characters was there in association with each other and with also some of these major themes that, granted, were much transformed in both style and form; but I think that's quite remarkable. Now, when Bellow read this, did he encourage you to become a serious novelist and get out of journalism, at least full time, as soon as you possibly could?

Kennedy: Well, the impetus to get out was there from the beginning, and if I had never met Bellow I would have eventually left journalism; and I would also have published, because I had that drive. Nobody was going to stop that. I was going to become a novelist. There was no way out of that. It might have taken me another ten years. But it took me years as it was. I mean we are talking about 1960. I didn't sell a book until eight years later. Whatever my encounter with Bellow was, it was not instant access to fame and glory and money. When I sold The Ink Truck in 1968 I made $3,500. That was hardly big money, but for me it was a mountain of gold. I didn't care. I would have accepted $500 just to get the book published and confirm that I was a writer. Because that was a very isolated and excruciating decade for me.

Smith: That's the 1960's you're talking about?

Kennedy: Yes, the '60s. I mean it was also a great decade. My children were just beginning to grow up, and I was free to write, and I was also free to starve, and I was working at The Times Union and having a great time covering the Civil Rights Movement and slum lords and becoming a movie critic, all these things with a very low level of income, so inadequate that I used to go out of the house in the morning with a dime in my pocket, a dime to make a phone call in case of an emergency so I could call and get money from somebody else.

Smith: This was after you had returned to Albany and you were working?

Kennedy: I was working part time for The Times Union, working for $100 a week. I came back in the summer of 1963.

Smith: But, before you did, and we'll get back to that particular period and what came out of that, what really came out of that connection with Bellow? Was it mostly a symbolic or inspirational encounter, or did he actually have an editorial impact on you manuscript?

Kennedy: He didn't have an overview. He never read the whole book, for it wasn't finished then. He read maybe four of five sections of it. Some of the sections he'd tell me, These are good, I don't have any complaints; and another one he'd tell me that the writing was fatty, clotty, and he corrected my sentences. You know he said, you're saying everything twice. That sort of criticism was very important. He also said something I never forgot, which was the idea that you should be prodigal. He said, just think about it, the billions of sperm that are expended in any given act of sex, but it only needs one to make a life. So, he said, be prodigal. Write as much as you need, to get what you want, and throw the rest away.

Smith: Many, many people have, in one way or another, noted the tremendous vitalism in your fiction. Were you aware that in Bellow's fiction at this time, and I'm thinking particularly of the two novels that he had written prior to when you encountered him in 1960, The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson and the Rain King that in both novels there's a kind of almost heroic vitalism about the characters, and they also have the prose that goes with it. Was that something you noted at the time and is it something that you feel somehow evolved in your own fiction?

Kennedy: Well, I had read Augie March partially, I think, before I met him, and I was reading Henderson when I was studying with him. I had been reading it before that. I loved Henderson and I liked Augie a lot. I had a harder time with Augie only because of the extent to which he went in developing characters. These were not necessarily story-related expansions of the characters. They were character expansions for their own sake, it seemed to me, and then the story would resume. My experience with Henderson was that it was one man moving through this exotic world; and it was always his consciousness. Everything was an impulse forward, no matter how many digressions there were. He was always central to the story. And in that sense I thought it was a better novel than Augie March. Yet there is so much in Augie that is terrific. What Henderson did was make me feel that I was a rank amateur, that I would never get anywhere with that kind of novel and I still can't aspire to that sort of novel. Bellow has a mind that is far more learned and far more interested in ideas than mine could ever be. My world is the world of event, and speculation, and language, but certainly not the expatiation of ideas or philosophical attitudes.

Smith: Many of your characters seem to be the embodiment of a kind of life-force including Francis Phelan. Bill, I'd like to talk particularly about the making of Ironweed. We've talked in the past about the evolution of the Phelan and the Quinn families going back to The Angels and the Sparrows. But I'd like to talk about how the individual characters crystallized in certain novels. Now, for example, you said that Billy Phelan was inspired by your uncle Pete McDonald. And of course he is one of the centers of consciousness of Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. How about the Francis Phelan of Ironweed? How long did that character evolve in the context of that novel? I mean, who is Francis? Where did he come from? I know you said when you were doing Angels and Sparrows Francis was there, but in the making of Ironweed, the novel, how did he come about?

Kennedy: I wrote the first Francis in Puerto Rico, and he was a young guy, thirtyish maybe, who was already drunk, and who had left home and was sort of a bum on the road. He finds out his mother's dead and he comes home, and he's a bad and nasty drunk. He comes into a saloon and they give him some "hellos" and he's nasty even to his old friends. Then he goes out and he gets really drunk and winds up at the mission. He comes out of the mission and goes to confession. He is not interested in the preacher at the mission to confess but he's impelled to go back and respond in some way to his own past, his own peccadillos, whatever they were. That confession was a cliche, but Francis did have an original vitality in that book, which I liked. And so when I did Billy, I reached back and lifted Francis out. In the meantime, I had done some reporting on winos in Albany and there was this guy I came across and I called him Buddy. I called him that in a series of articles that I wrote about the wino life. Buddy was a very articulate, funny fellow, a desperately-defeated guy at the bottom of the world getting drunk every night, a real wino, but with this very engaging intelligence. There was something that caught my attention in that idea that here is this incredible intelligence in a human being at the bottom of the world, and you know he was almost hallucinating, sometimes when we'd talk he's be rambling. And that idea pervaded my creation of Francis the idea that here was a man at the bottom of the world, and yet he is still witty, resilient in a way, ready to get up tomorrow and start over, but not in any way that moved toward personal redemption or success in any form whatever. The opposite really. He was driving obviously towards self-destruction. At the same time he was riding on a rainbow of hallucinatory, boozy arcs. Rising up, peaking, going down, depressed, drunk, getting up in the morning, rising up again. That was a remarkable thing, and it struck me, when I began to write it, that that's probably the way Francis lived. He gets up out of an old field full of weeds, snow in his ears, and he walks towards the bridge to commit suicide because he doesn't want to stand another night like this, but he can't kill himself. He turns around and he goes on and lives his life. I suspect that I had this feeling that Francis also had a drive toward redemption. Where that comes from, I don't know, but I suspect that that was the way I felt about the man who belonged in this particular story, for that's what the story was about. It wasn't a tragedy of disillusion and dying alone. Even Helen's disillusion and dying alone isn't a tragic thing in itself because she's somehow justified, and at peace with death, through her own thought. That's the way I felt about her anyway.

Smith: Now, when you started to write it, and we're talking about the genesis of the novel Ironweed, you had completed Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Francis had made a brief but significant appearance in that novel. When did this crystallize? You've created many unforgettable characters in your novels, but Francis Phelan is one of the gigantic, memorable, fallen characters in contemporary fiction, maybe twentieth century fiction. Readers all over the world seem to be able to empathize and identify with this character who is a drunk, a renegade, a runner, a killer one could go on and yet, he's a character of enormous moral complexity, which is why he is this gigantic character. Where did all that moral complexity come from in your development of Francis Phelan?

Kennedy: I'm not sure. It comes out of me, obviously. The moral complexity of Francis is somehow my idea of what a man would be, given this incredible matrix of psychological, psychic, physical suffering and, at the same time, he would still be a man of moral means, a man who had a populist, quasi-heroic-almost streak in him from childhood, who was a daredevil. It's like juxtaposing the daredevil element of a life with the worst that can happen to that daredevil, and then seeing what comes of it. I mean the physical, psychic, and moral odds against him are staggering. He must strive constantly to stay alive physically, psychically, psychologically, sexually, professionally as a baseball player, and emotionally as a family member. He's always challenged at every level you could imagine a man being challenged at, and he survives.

Smith: And, of course, Francis appears again, and finally, unforgettably in Very Old Bones. How about the title, Very Old Bones, for this very complex, elaborate, brooding and yet ebullient novel about these Albany families? When did you know that that was your title?

Kennedy: I had it as a working title for a long time and I called it Old Bones. I didn't like it that much. So I added "very".

Smith: That was my next question. Why Very Old Bones?

Kennedy: Well, the story of Malachi, and the dredging up of that skeleton in the family closet, so to speak. I felt that that was one element of bones. There were other bones. There were the mastodon bones and . . .

Smith: Very ancient relics.

Kennedy: . . . also Billy's broken leg and Tommy's chipped backbone, and Peter's arthritic hips, and the corpse of the infant in the cellar; and there is that final skeleton dance in the last chapter. But this was a book about ancestry, and its influence on the contemporary family. I felt that was an apt title to think of those old bones moldering in some pauper cemetery somewhere in Albany and still exercising an influence three generations later. Not only that these old bones being a product also of much older bones. The antecedents of the pernicious attitudes of Malachi are absolutely central to what he becomes in his own time, and what he does to affect the lives of those who come after him.

Smith: There's a wonderful sentence right at the end of the book which I wonder if you could elaborate on in terms of this multiple meaning, multiple resonance for the title. This is Orson, who at the tag-end of Very Old Bones says, "We are, after all, a collective, a unified psyche that so desperately wants not to be plural. I am one with the universe, each of the Phelans say, but I am one. It's a problem we have."

Kennedy: It's the idea of the Phelans being what they were; and what they had become in Orson's mind. He sees the collective behavior that distinguishes the Phelans from other families. He know they're not so different from other families, and he has been able to perceive the similarities, the weirdness in their lives, the religious zealotry that has warped so many of them, the fear of life that existed in them, the clandestine life of Molly. Not that that is so unusual, but when Orson looks at it all together, he sees this behavior and considers it a collective. He says, "we want to be plural." They're all striving for their individual destinies, but they seem afflicted, somehow, by this code that they don't even know exists, but had been promulgated before they were born, and has worked its way into the consciousness of their parents, their grandparents, and their ancestors of untraceable distance and it has made them what they are "You made me what I am today, I hope you're satisfied."

Smith: And all the while that you have been writing this great cycle of novels about individual character and collective fate, you have also been writing journalism, nonfiction, movies, including movies of your own novels. But the main focus is on your fiction, is it not?

Kennedy: The only thing that makes me tick is my novels. If I were doing only journalism and movie scripts, I would be a very unhappy person because I would not feel like a serious citizen of the world. I don't think I'm as serious as I can be in journalism, and I'm certainly not in the movies. Movies are great fun and journalism is wonderful, but all these are composite operations that have to deal with approval by other people, even approval of yourself to deal with the other people. You have to really wonder how movies ever get made, once you get into the movie business, because it is so ridiculous as a life pursuit. I would never do that and I'm counseling my son Brendan not to do it either. But it's fun.

Smith: OK. All these composite activities, or changes of pace, which are fun and rewarding in various ways, and stimulating in various ways, do you worry at this point that they'll undercut your energy or your focus to go on and on and write novels, write serious novels which obviously come from the depths of your imagination?

Kennedy: I don't think that they will undercut it. If I thought they would, I would stop doing them. I think of them as a source of diversion and money. You do make money when you write novels but that's not really why you write novels. You can think of any number of things to do over a four-year period that would make you more money than you get writing a novel. But I'm always writing novels. I'm accumulating novels now. I'm going back and discovering what I had in my notebooks, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago and exercising the imagination on that old stuff which is I don't know really what it is. The more I discover, the more I wonder what it means.

Smith: Well, I was going to ask you. I have heard serious novelists say that they were worried at some point that they would exhaust their material. If you lived to be 150, do you think that you would exhaust your material for what we now call the Albany Cycle of novels?

Kennedy: I don't know. I think that I have an awful lot of books in my head. But they're not all equal. All pigs were not created equal. Some are more equal than others, and those are the ones that leap forward and get written. Some of them have too much water in their blood at this stage, but usually that's a product of insufficient thinking, insufficient imposition of the imagination on the material; because you never like the book when you start it. If I lived to be 150, which is not that far away, it's only 86 years, I have maybe five books right at this moment that I could begin to focus on. There's always five out there somehow. Because the more I go, the more I learn about these various moments in history, and then more and more people demand attention. I mean, Quinn of Quinn's Book is an incomplete character. Whatever happened to him? Well, I'm going to have to figure that out sooner or later. Whatever happened to Maud? Where did George Quinn come from? Where did Danny Quinn come from? Six novels. I forgot about Puerto Rico. Somewhere I've got to do Puerto Rico, but I don't know how, and I'll probably be as transient about it as I was in the treatment of Germany.

Smith: Well, more and more I've thought that there is something Balzacian about you, that you're a kind of nineteenth century novelist in the twentieth century, and I'm not alluding to Quinn's Book, but in the sense that the more you create, the more is there. That both you and I think your attentive readers wonder about, yes, what indeed happens to Maud and Quinn at the end of Quinn's Book, and then you could go on and on. So it really is inexhaustible in the way it was for the great nineteenth century novelists.

Kennedy: I hope so, because that's really all I want to do. I have this world at my fingertips, really. It's as far away as the library and a shelf of Albany books, and a decision to enter a particular column of time that seems significant for me. I have a political novel about Dan O'Connell, the old Albany political boss and all of that crowd. I have a novel about the '60s somewhere. I have a fragment of a Puerto Rican novel. I have the conclusion of Quinn. I have a novel about the making of the play The Flaming Corsage and the beginning of movie-making in this country, the silent movie period.

Smith: And those six novels will generate six more?

Kennedy: Maybe. I hope so. And one of the things I'd love to do is go back and do a novel about the colonization, and the old Dutchmen that were around here.

Smith: Seventeenth century.

Kennedy: Really early seventeenth century, a wilderness novel maybe. I haven't figured that one out yet. That's really problematic and seems a long way away. There's also a very good Revolutionary War novel here with a lot of the principal figures of the Revolution being present.

Smith: That's a great omission in serious contemporary letters. We need a good Revolutionary War novel. Do you have a Watergate novel, a War of 1812 novel?

Kennedy: No, not yet. But there is a great history in the Revolution and there are two great characters. Three. There seems to be high drama there. I'm not sure I want to take it on at this stage. It might be something I'll save for a later time, when I get older. In my nineties, maybe.

Smith: There is a sense that your fiction seems to gravitate towards hope, towards deliverance, towards an ultimate redemption even. I think of the great endings of your novels the ending of Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Billy's deliverance back into the world again, back into the only cosmos in town. I think of the ending of IronweedFrancis Empyrean, both his spiritual and emotional home, he has a vision of it at the very tag-end of Ironweed. And I think of that wonderfully satisfying, maybe the ultimate happy ending, the union of Quinn and Maud (at least for the time being) in Quinn's Book, and then of course that magnificent, mythic lunch on the 26th of July 1958, which ends Very Old Bones. Yet, on the other hand, Joshua, the run-away slave in Quinn's Book says what I think is maybe the quintessential, or one of the quintessential, Kennedy lines, " If you lose, it's fate, if you win, it's a trick." And what I'd like to ask you, two things, is there a contradiction there and what are the odds?

Kennedy: Well, I don't think there's a contradiction. I think what's inherent in that is that both things are eminently possible, both visions are eminently possible. "If you lose, it's fate. If you win, it's a trick." And Francis is trying to obviate that at the end of his life. I mean, he's won in certain ways. He's won psychologically and psychically by getting away, and he's won also by having gone home and found redemption. But he's also killed somebody else unpremeditatedly, and he's on the run, and so he really is nowhere again. That's hardly a totally happy ending. It's a psychically happy ending for Francis because he really has redeemed himself in a way that's very significant and very clear to his soul. He's a man who has arrived at a certain form of peace, found a way to live in the world without trying to kill himself constantly out of guilt and self-hate. But his fate is that he's again alone on the road. Billy Phelan, well, Billy is redeemed for the moment but, as you know, he doesn't go along with everything, and it looks like his victories were maybe just a trick. Or maybe just fate? Either one, it doesn't matter. He's still wondering where the hell he is in the world. I never feel that these endings are the ending of life. It's not a finale to a film or anything like that . . . and they lived happily ever after. It's a moment in which these characters become defined up to this point.

Smith: Sort of interim reports.

Kennedy: For instance, Orson and Giselle. What's going to happen there? They're going to remarry and have a child, but where is the future? I have no idea. I don't know where Maud and Quinn are. I don't know where Billy Phelan's going to go from here, but he's still alive in 1958. He's only 51 years old.

Smith: That's young.

Kennedy: You bet.

Smith: Well, in other words, there is no contradiction between those apparent "deliverances" or genuine redemptions, and Joshua's observation,"If you lose, it's fate. If you win, it's a trick."

Kennedy: Well, it's especially poignant to hear that coming from a black man, because the ways of the trickster are how so many blacks felt that they survived. That's why they loved the trickster figure in slave literature or spoken literature the idea that you are always tricking the white man. The other side of that is that you're black and you're going to be a slave forever, and die a slave. That's what's happened to so many people. And it's still a terrible life for so many black people today.

Smith: And we are still working with those odds. You're still working with those odds for all those characters past, present and future. You're a novelist with a highly developed historical and social imagination. As we approach the millennium, are the odds nine-to-five or six-to-five, as you conjured with in a recent non-fiction piece of yours will we make it?

Kennedy: Damon Runyon's idea was, I used to think, that "all life is nine-to-five against." Peter Maas corrected me on this and said the line was that "all life is six-to-five against, just enough to keep you interested." I'm interested, but I'll go with the nine.

Smith: Well, that's about as optimistic as one can get, I think, for the moment. So this is not our last conversation between now and the end of century. But maybe we ought to end it on that.

Kennedy: Nine-to-five.

Tom Smith
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Robert Coover
Funhouses of Time and Space

Enter any of Robert Coover's fictional worlds at your own risk. Just as with the work of some of the best-known metafictionists of our time, Beckett, Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, Hawkes, Barthelme, or Nabokov, among others with whom he is often compared, reading Coover entails serious and disturbing fun. Whether we are offended or enthralled by the cultic deification of Giovanni Bruno, the unlikable survivor of a small-town mining disaster in The Origin of the Brunists, Coover's PEN/Faulkner award-winning first novel in 1966, or outraged and seduced by the adulterous host and narrator of his 1985 murder comedy, Gerald's Party, or sucked willingly into the vortex of middle-American lusts and life in this year's John's Wife, we can always find, as we can in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a grimly sardonic spectacle that strikes at the heart of whatever bourgeois spaces we inhabit.

So, in light of this pleasurable discomfort that Coover can provoke in us, what do we make of his suggestion, in the June 21, 1992 issue of the New York Times Book Review, that books, exactly the kind he has spent over thirty years writing and publishing and reading from, are doomed to disappear into hyperspace, and soon?

" . . . hypertext presents a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author," Coover informs us. While he concedes that he is, for better or worse, committed, as he eases into his seventh decade on the planet, to obsolescent print technology, he is also clearly intrigued by any literary form which will subvert "the traditional bourgeois novel and in fictions that challenge linearity."

Indeed, much of John's Wife, (whose name we never do learn), seems to work that hypertext way, even while it remains trapped inside a book, leading us into the kinds of labyrinthine, polyvocal motivations and confessions that make us feel interestingly lost, without the reassuring narrative flow we often associate with standard, published fictions. Referring to one of the perceived perils of hypertext, Coover points out its dimensionless infinity . . . more like endless expansion . . . If everything is middle, how do you know when you are done, either as a reader or writer?"

And yet, his books on some level help to establish the bridge to that brave new world of online existence. So many times, in the middle of a Coover fiction, we experience that very expansion, that disconcerting formlessness, not only in terms of time and space, but with our own senses of identity. His characters look and sound and act like us some of the time, but would we really do what they seem to be doing the shocking rest of the time? Do we think or act this way already, in some inchoate form, and just reflect ourselves differently back to ourselves for self-preservation?

That Robert Coover can hit a nerve in all of us, with his postmodern, metaphysical carnivals, is an understatement. That his work interfaces so easily with our inevitable plunge into hyperspace is, for him, perhaps a paradoxical blessing, and what it augurs for the rest of us is, of course, hard to predict. But, whether we experience Coover's imagination in books or online or at a Writer's Institute reading, lost in the dizzying swirl of each of his imaginative funhouses, we often find ourselves appalled and laughing and disgusted and amazed, by turns, compelled to keep watching by what seems so perversely familiar in his ever-shifting hall of mirrors.

Bill Patrick is a visiting writer at the New York State Writers Institute and conducts an Introduction to Screenwriting Workshop, Fall 1996.

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Robert Coover

African-American Autobiography

“We’ve always told our own true tales,” Veronica Chambers told Essence magazine this past May, referring to the long tradition of African-American storytelling which, more than fable or parable, has contained the history of a people.

On October 2 and 3, that tradition will be on rich display when the New York State Writers Institute hosts a symposium on “African-American Autobiography,” featuring five leading black writers in the fields of memoir, biography, social criticism and cultural history. The panel of the two-day event will include Chambers, author of Mama’s Girl, a memoir of her mother;

Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, whose story of growing up in a mixed-race family is recounted in The Sweeter the Juice; feminist theorist and cultural critic bell hooks, author of Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery; biographer Arnold Rampersad, who has written on, among others, W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes; and Clifton L. Taulbert, whose Once Upon a Time When...We Were Colored and The Last Train North are memoirs of growing up and coming of age in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The symposium will include readings from each guest, an open discussion among the authors, and a question period from the audience. Chambers and Taulbert will appear on the first day, and Haizlip, hooks and Rampersad are scheduled for the second.

At 25, Veronica Chambers has already worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Premiere, co-authored, with John Singleton, the screenplay of Poetic Justice, and was a Freedom Forum Fellow at Columbia University. Her new book, Mama’s Girll, compared her professional success with the life of her mother, a secretary who raised Chambers and her brother alone in Brooklyn.

“I never stop feeling that I want to make things up to my mother,” Chambers writes “-- make up for her difficulties with my father . . . for my brother’s failure to do well in school . . . for the ways in which we all left her. So I buy her things.” This schism between her mother, struggling against difficult odds, and Chamber’s own good fortune, becomes a metaphor for the complexities facing a whole generation of young African-American professionals.

In Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, published in 1989, Clifton L. Taulbert discussed a different sort of divide, between the black and white sections of the delta town Glen Allen, Mississippi during the Eisenhower years. Plagued by racism and injustice, the residents of “colored town,” nevertheless enjoyed a sense of closeness that the author says has disappeared with integration. “A bittersweet story about love, community and family,” is how Rosemary Bray described the book in the New York Times. “There is very little about a segregated America that bears nostalgia . . . yet [Taulbert] has evoked such loving memories that readers will come away from [the book] at least a little sorry they didn’t grow up there.”

A film version of Once Upon a Time, directed by Tim Reid, will be presented Friday, October 4th at 7:30 p.m. in Page Hall on the University at Albany's downtown campus.

The sense of division runs through Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White, as she confronts the mixed-race heritage of her history, and of the United States. “Genes and chromosomes from Africa, Europe and a pristine America commingled and created me,” she writes. “I have been called Egyptian, Italian, Jewish, French, Iranian, Armenian, Syrian, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek. I have also been called black and Peola and nigger and high yellow and bright. I am an American anomaly. I am an American ideal.”

As she searches for a complete understanding of her heritage, Haizlip describes the insurmountable distance between her white and black ancestors, and meditates on the futility of racial purity in our heterogeneous culture. “What happened in my family,” she concludes, “. . . calls into question the concept of color as a means of self-definition.” Self-definition is precisely the concern of bell hooks, the pen name of Gloria Watkins, whose Sisters of the Yam has been described as “a self-help book for progressive black women.” Against the barrage of institutionalized racism and sexism, hooks, who was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “one of the foremost black intellectuals in America today,” describes how African-American women can heal emotional wounds without capitulating to what she sees as the social roots of their pain.

Hooks draws from her own autobiography to describe the processes of wounding and recovery. “Like all the books I have written,” she says early on, “[this book] comes to me from places deep and dark within me, secret, mysterious places, where the ancestors dwell, along with countless spirits and angels. “Hers is a bracing combination, the tender and the defiant, a stance that hooks argues is, by disposition and necessity, the American black woman’s essential nature.

“I think autobiography is much easier to teach,” biographer Arnold Rampersad told Contemporary Authors, “and can go a long way toward satisfying whatever need is filled by biography.” The author of a two-volume life of poet Langston Hughes, Rampersad also collaborated with tennis star Arthur Ashe on his 1993 autobiography Days of Grace. In contrast to bell hooks, Rampersad approaches the meaning of autobiography with the objective distance of the scholar and historian. Their differences suggest the vitality of the notion of “our own true tales.”

Timothy Cahill writes for the Times Union newspaper in Albany and is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.

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African-American Autobiography Symposium

Philip Levine
Language of Truth

In his 1994 memoir The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, poet Philip Levine recalls an anecdote about John Berryman, who in 1954 was teaching at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where Levine was an MFA student. Berryman, lecturing on the potency of language, plucked an example from the pages of the New York Times. In an article about Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the waning days of his anti-communist witch-hunts, the senator affirmed his support for his assistants David Shine and Roy Cohn by declaring, "I stand behind them to the hilt. "

"We now know what Mr. McCarthy thinks we do not know," Levine reports Berryman saying, "that he is about to stab them in the back, abandon them both as political liabilities.... Because he is an habitual liar, Mr. McCarthy has blinded himself to the ability of language to reveal us even when we're taking pains not to be revealed. "

Berryman's political prognostication was right, and with it, Levine observed a truth he has applied to his art throughout his writing life. Across the span of his distinguished career, beginning with the 1961 On the Edge through his acclaimed What Work Is and up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning collected poems The Simple Truth, Levine has confronted reality with the tenacity of an investigative reporter. He has trusted "the ability of language," playing upon the quotidian material of his own experience, to reveal not just himself, but all of us, as human beings, as citizens, and as a nation.

Levine has been compared by the Yale Review to Walt Whitman for his "sensibility to all experience" and, by the Georgia Review to William Carlos Williams for "eschewing. . .the silk-covered cushion in favor of the bus-station bench." That this child of Russian-Jewish immigrants from the working sections of Detroit should be identified with such quintessentially American writers conveys precisely Levine's poetic strength, his ability to capture the specific mixture of gritty realism and romantic innocence that underscores our society.

In "Sources," for example, from his 1981 collection One For the Rose, the poet begins with an inventory of decay -- "Fish scales, wet newspapers . . . smoking tires," depicting, as is often the case in Levine's work, a moral rot at the heart of the country. Nevertheless, in the same breath with which he decries the hypocrisy of the nation, at the end of the poem Levine leaves himself space to bear witness to the world's beauty, grace, even wonder, finishing with a lush list of the sources of Detroit-made automobile names "that mean Lover/ of Horses, Hammer, First and Only, Last/ but Not Least, Beloved of God .... "

Levine uses the plain "language" of the American people -- our speech, our actions, our possessions and surroundings -- to "reveal us even when we're taking pains not to be revealed. " His revelations are not purely dark, however, he searches to find the poetry of our lives that corporate America would also have us overlook, as in two 1994 poems -- "Magpiety," which ends, "Everything is speaking or singing./ We're still here. " and "One Day," in which a couple travels "on and on, as far as we could/ into a day that never ended. "

Such poetry aims, as critic Dave Smith has written, for "a visceral rather than a mental response" which, though rife with pitfalls, is profoundly fulfilling. Levine "risks the maudlin, the sentimental, the banal," Smith points out, " . . . because he cannot live in the world fully enough; because the world is so much with us all we must sing or die of its inexpressible presence. "

Timothy Cahill writes for the Times Union newspaper in Albany and is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.

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Philip Levine

Peter Matthiessen
Capturing the World's Voices

Between 1951, when Peter Matthiessen co-founded The Paris Review, and April of 1995, when his article on whale hunting with the Inuhuit, using kayak and hand-harpoon off the coast of Greenland, appeared in The New Yorker, he wrote and published twenty-four books -- six novels, one collection of short stories, and seventeen non-fiction works. He has travelled to all the remote areas most of us can only dream of visiting: the length of South America, all the way to Tierra del Fuego, for The Cloud Forest (1961); to central New Guinea for Under the Mountain Wall (1962); to Africa many times, from 1960 to 1992, through Kenya and Tanzania for The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972) and Sand Rivers (1981), to Senegal, the Ivory Coast and then back through Zaire for African Silences (1991), and even far into the ocean off East Africa, following a film crew in search of the great white shark, and emerging with Blue Meridian (1971).

Perhaps Matthiessen's most famous non-fiction book is The Snow Leopard, a remarkable blend of zoology, memoir, poetry, travel adventure, and Zen Buddhism, which won the National Book Award in 1979. Structured as a prologue and four sections of journal entries, The Snow Leopard chronicles Matthiessen's 85-day, 250-mile foot journey through the Himalaya, in search of not only the near-mythic, eponymous great cat of Northwest Nepal and Tibet, but also in personal search of the Lama of Shey, believed by Buddhists to be an incarnation of Milarepa's teacher, Marpa, the revered, 12th Century Lama. That Matthiessen's wife and fellow Zen student, Deborah Love, had died of cancer the winter before his journey, which he tells us quietly in the prologue, adds an undercurrent of tragedy and a healing dimension to an already-riveting story.

To continue on with his international projects would be to forget his extensive travels within the United States, not only as a naturalist author but as a social activist as well. His Wildlife in America (1959) and The Shorebirds of North America (1966) place him firmly and competently in the company of Edwin Way Teale, Roger Tory Peterson, and Edward Abbey. Matthiessen's profile of Cesar Chavez (Sal Si Puedes, 1969) and his book on the commercial fishermen of Eastern Long Island (Men's Lives, 1986), near to his heart because he was himself a commercial fisherman out of Montauk in the mid-50's, as well as his two books about Native Americans, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Indian Country, were all seminal works of political conscience. But they were, by his own admission, written to aid specific causes, and didn't "originate in his own oyster", as he described it. They felt rushed to him.

What he wants to write is fiction. In spite of this amazing, diverse parade of eloquent non-fiction, Matthiessen believes his real writing is in his novels. In a 1987 interview with Kate Bonetti, he says, "Non-fiction for me is always, even a book like The Snow Leopard, in some ways labor: it involves research; I have to stick to the facts; it's a piecing together and a construction, maybe like cabinet work . . . and it really drains me. I find fiction does just the opposite. My battery is just re-charged all the time, as I go along . . . it feels much more natural, and it's much more fun." Matthiessen is a slow novel-writer. He says he worked for twelve years on Far Tortuga, his favorite book before he finished his last novel, Killing Mister Watson. Far Tortuga is his dramatic tale of a doomed Caribbean sea-voyage in search of turtles, told in the voices of the Captain and his eight crew members and in a narrator's lyrical fragments of action and description. He would have gone on longer than twelve years but he "started to wreck it. You go stale and it becomes stiff and literary and useless, and by that time you have to quit. That's the only reason I quit with Far Tortuga. I started to do it damage. When you find yourself coming back the next day and erasing more than you keep, you better get the hell out of that book."

Matthiessen's most recent novel took even longer: Killing Mister Watson was "ten years on note-boards" and five more in the actual writing. Once again, it's mostly a novel in voices, a multiple-narrator book that probes the collective murder of the Everglades' most infamous outlaw, Edgar J. Watson, of the Ten Thousand Islands area. But to call this novel, or Far Tortuga, polyvocal, is to obscure their relentless power with an abstraction. They are about language honed into voices that incarnate as moving characters: it's as if Matthiessen has channelled these characters instead of writing them. We can almost hear them breathing inside his pages.

Noting that he feels everything in a non-fiction book has to be the truth, as the author can best remember and represent it, Matthiessen once said, "That's why I like fiction better. You're not trapped by what happened." It's difficult for us, reading his seemingly effortless and moving non-fiction, to agree that this trap of truth has held him back in any way, but perhaps what Matthiessen is really after in his writing is what Lewis Moon, his anti-hero in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, is after: to be, as in the Amazonian Indian myth, a moth trying to reach the moon in the high darkness. Perhaps his fictional ventriloquism gets him closer to that mystical, full light, or maybe it fills him with the longing that reassures him he has not yet found what he is looking for -- that common miracle (water in a pail; rice in a bowl) waiting in the next journey of language.

Bill Patrick is a visiting writer at the New York State Writers Institute and conducts an Introduction to Screenwriting Workshop, Fall 1996.

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Peter Matthiessen

Walter Mosley
Talks on Writing

Walter Mosley, author of five mystery novels in the Easy Rawlins series (most recently, A Little Yellow Dog) and the novel, RL's Dream, spoke at the Writers Institute on February 20, 1996. Affable, witty, and always ready to slip into street slang, Mosley entertained questions from audience members after reading from RL's Dream and A Little Yellow Dog. Mosley's steady informality belies his serious thought about writing as an African American, the politics of culture, and the deeper issues that lie beneath his popular writing. A number of questions refer to both the novel and film Devil in a Blue Dress, the film of which was then in general release. Mosley begins by talking about the differences between his "literary" novel and those in the mystery genre...

RL's Dream is much more serious than the other book A Little Yellow Dog. I like it, but I don't read from it as much anymore. Bill [Kennedy] and I were talking about going on tour -- you go on tour and you read your books until you hate them. I haven't read this in a long time. I'm kind of partial to it; it's my little move outside the genre, which I think is something healthy to do. Otherwise you get stuck in commerce, you know.

"When's the next Easy book? -- Well, we can up that advance."
"Well, I'd like to write a book about the blues."
"Oh, really. And who's going to publish that? You going to give that to a university press? It's a history, right?"
So, [to audience] any questions, thoughts, declarations of love, offers of money? There's a hand.

Q: Why do you use colors in the book titles?

A: I'm often asked that question, and I always have the same answer, which one guy actually got angry at me about and wrote me a five-page letter, rebuking my answer. But my answer is, there must be. You see, I wrote a book, called Devil in a Blue Dress. I thought it was kind of a catchy title. People said, "Ooh, yeah, yeah, I'd like to read that." They wouldn't know why exactly, but they'd think so. Then A Red Death is kind of like a send-up, you know -- "Masque of the Red Death", Edgar Allen Poe, the discoverer of the detective novel in the American world. So I'm working on the third book and my editor, Jerry Howard, says, "So what's the color of this one?" And I looked at him and said, "The color?" And he goes, "Yup, blue, red, got to have a color." And I didn't have a bad reaction to that. I said, "All right, White Butterfly." That's good. I was going to call it Papillon, but he didn't say I shouldn't use a French name. I was going to call it Papillon Blanc, and [then] he said, "No, no, no, no, no, we don't like the French that much in this country. When they translate it, they can call it that." And I've liked it since then.

I was going to write Bad Boy Bobby Brown. [Laughter] No, honestly, this was before that became a popular phrase. Now I'm afraid I'm going to get sued if I use that name, so I'm going to have to change that. Then the next Easy book after that, I'm going to call Ruby, which I really love as a title.
You see, I believe that most things are not what they appear to be. I believe that most reading is talking about reading. You read a story, somebody else reads a story, and you talk about that, and that's where learning comes in. I believe that most of the things that we write as novelists and poets and essayists come from unconscious places, and what our real process is is to organize the unconscious in a way that seems to make sense on one level, while making a completely other kind of sense, that you don't quite understand, on another level. And so, the same thing with my titles. See, that was a little question. Nobody ever asks me a big one. Is there a question back there? . . . What about what? . . . Blacky girl? No, I have Black Betty. Well, you know, "Black Betty" is the title of a song by Leadbelly:

Black Betty had a baby
Wasn't none of mine
I think those are all the lyrics he ever says in the whole song. Goes on for a while. And [for me] it was a nostalgic feeling. But again, you know, I don't know. Had to have a color. Liked Black Betty, quite a bit. . . . Yes?

Q: Can you comment on the places and times that Easy Rawlins lived?

A: The times and places that Easy Rawlins lived? You know, he was born in the deep South, lives in the deep South, in a place that's almost magical in its best and worst senses. I wrote a book about that. It hasn't got published yet, but it's going to be published in about 24 months, about Easy and Mouse when they were 19, 20 years old. It's a coming of age novel. You know, you write a coming of age novel about black men in 1989, and you get this kind of response from the publishers:
"Now, wait a sec, are they in politics?"
"Are there black women?"
"Well, there are some, but you know, it's about these two black men."
"Well, are there white people in it?"
"Not really."
And they say, "Well, is it about the Revolution, or is it about Civil Rights?"
"No, none of that stuff. It's just two young black men living among other black people."

And they say, "Well, you have to understand. White people don't read about black people. Black women don't like black men. And black men don't read." I once went to a bookstore where I was talking about that once, and I pointed to all of the black men in the audience and I said, "You know, you guys must have all thought you were coming to a video store, right? But that video store's across the hall in the mall." Nobody left, luckily.

I'm trying to write about that wonderful kind of under-discussed migration of black men and women from the deep South after WWII. America -- like if you sold a banana in South America, America got a piece of it. If you sold a pound of rice in China, America got a piece of it. America got a piece of everything. We were rich. We were the Mob. We had everything. And so we needed to build more and more things so we could make more and more money, and there were jobs available. So black people were moving up North, moving into California, moving everywhere, so they could work. Because, you know, all the jobs were taken in the South, and the South was still depressed over the Civil War. So all these black people moved out. They moved to California so they could get jobs so they could work. And that's what I want to talk about, because nobody talks about it. You know they have these maps, these mystery maps? You know, Philip Marlowe was here [in L.A.], and Continental Op was here, and so and so was here, and the one time Nero Wolfe ever came to California he was here. But when you see South Central -- one time Philip Marlowe was on Central Avenue, and that was it.

One of the things is, historically, we [African Americans] haven't written a great deal of popular fiction about our lives, and about our movements, and it's something that needs to be done. So that's why I've done it. But you know, it's like '48, migration, '53, McCarthy, '58, who knows what happened in '58? Then we get into the '60's and we start talking about black violence, we start talking about black revolution, etc. I want to bring Easy up to the '90's. He can go through two riots. I like that idea.

Q: What did you think about the movie of Devil in a Blue Dress?

A: Well, I didn't make it, so I wouldn't change it. It's Carl's [Carl Franklin’s] movie, and I loved it. I thought it was a wonderful movie. It's too bad that we didn't see more of the Daphne Monet character, and that we didn't get deeper into her character, for a few reasons, I think. But you can't do everything, and I think it's a really good movie. And a movie that will stand the test of time. I don't think it will become passe. I was very happy with it. It didn't do very well. But, what can you say?

Q: Where did the story of Devil in a Blue Dress come from?

A: You know, who knows? Speaking again about the unconscious, one time, in Devil in a Blue Dress, I wrote about a guy, owned a bar, was married to a woman. He was messing around all the time. He mistreated her, he had all these girlfriends. And then he got sick, diabetes, lost both of his Legs, lost both Legs, and the wife puts him in a room, and every night she comes in and she sets down a fifth of whiskey in front of him. Then she goes into the next room, next door with some man, and then she has loud sex with that man all night long. Maybe a couple of men. And I thought that this was kind of a wonderful thing.

Well, my father read the book. My father reads that part and he says, "Walter, you know that part, where they were having, you know, the woman and the sex and the man with the Legs?" And I said, "Yeah, dad. You like that?" He said, "Yeah, I liked it, but how did you know that?" And I said, "Well, what do you mean? I made it up."

He said, "No, no, no. I knew that man. I knew that man. He lived right down the street from me." You know, it's an amazing thing, the amount of knowledge that you have. Thing is, what I do -- I wrote this chapter [of RL's Dream]. It's the first thing I wrote in this book. It was Chapter 11, the first thing I wrote. And I didn't do any research at all. None. I just wrote it. And then I went through it to see what was wrong. Like I would talk to people from Mississippi, and I would talk to my father, who is from Louisiana. I'd talk to them and say, "Does anything sound like, wrong, in this?" I think a couple of things were off, you know, and I added the smells, but as a rule, I just wrote it. Because fiction is an amazing thing. Not only is 90 percent of what you learn from fiction what you talk about it, but also, most of what the audience gets is what they bring to it. Your problem is not to mislead the audience. Your problem is to open a world to them, and let them bring their information to it. All you have to do is not lie. And so my research has always been a kind of backwards research. To make sure that the things I said are, one, evocative, and, two, not wrong.

Q: Your characters seem less black or white than simply human. How conscious are you of race when you write?

A:Well, you know what Angela Davis say: Race is a consequence of racism. But believe me, you and I are not the same. We know that in the world, that to be black in the world is to be black in the world. It's not what you look like. It has nothing to do with what you look like. You say, "Well, that man look like a nigger to me. What's that mean? Well, I don't know exactly. But that's a nigger." And that's kind of the way it is. It's the kind of illusion that can get you killed, you know. And when an illusion gets so deep that it can get you killed, it starts becoming reality, I think.

Q: Do you write your father and mother into your books at all?

A: My mother kind of made some appearances in A Red Death. She definitely made some appearances there. And Easy is not becoming like my father. My father's more like Mouse than Easy really. I know you're supposed to write autobiographically, and I've heard very important people say that we all do it, and who else could I be writing about really, than who I know, and me. I mean, who else could I be writing about? Who do I live with? But the thing is that Easy is Easy. He's like a guy I could never be.

Q: Easy relies on Mouse even when he knows Mouse is bad. What's important to Easy about friendship?

A: Yeah, Easy has a thing about friends which is good, I think. But you know, when you come from that rural background and you come to the city, what people do is they relied on friends. Not having money wasn't as important in the country as it is in the city. If you don't have money in the city, you're going to die. You don't have money in the country, well, if you've got friends, what difference does it make?

Q: Do you prefer first or third person narrative?

A: Well, you know, most of RL's Dream is third person. And I didn't feel bad about it when I wrote it. And of all the myriad criticisms that I got for it, like, for instance-- that I didn't like my characters, I don't know the blues, the blues is not the devil's music-- of all the criticisms that I got, one of them wasn't that I didn't know how to do third person. I like third person, but when you're writing a mystery, it's very good to have a . . . because that central character, you got his voice. It's a very hard thing to do, first person. It's easier to write third person.

Q: Some of your language is very poetic. Where does that come from?

A: Well, I studied poetry for about three or four years with Bill Matthews, the poet. And I studied very seriously, with my very bad poetry. The one thing that poets have still is a mastery of the tool, of metaphor, of illusion, of condensation, of meter and of music. They master that. A good poet has to master all of those things. And a good fiction writer, may not [be a] master, but you've got to know it pretty well. So I studied poetry in order to write fiction, but again I'm not consciously going out and saying, "Okay, I'm going to use this thing." I know there are a couple of rhymes, for instance, in the way Soupspoon talks in that chapter [of RL's Dream]. And they came out naturally, and I left them, because sometimes people do talk in rhyme, especially that oral history. It's like we were talking earlier about Raymond Chandler -- I think it was Raymond Chandler. It could have been a Ross McDonald line -- where he said, "He was calm, like an adobe wall in moonlight." That's a very poetic line, but it's also very true. It hits you, and it's like something you probably hadn't thought of before, even though you've seen it, you know?

Q: I wanted to ask you about your feelings about the adoration of Bill Clinton?

A: My feelings about it? It doesn't hurt. I always say that you know I'm very pleased that it wasn't George Bush who liked my books, because I'd have to say -- I mean, I'd be nice -- I'd say, "Well, at least he has one bit of taste in his life." One bit of non-criminal activity. I've been very happy about it. It's a very interesting thing. I'm a very technical guy. I think technically. People ask me a question like that and I think I have to answer it technically -- "What was Bill Clinton's effect?" -- as if like I'm my publisher's accountant, you know? "What was his effect on your career?" And I know. I figured it out. Because it didn't sell that many books, really. It's steadily gotten better, but the reason is, it's because, you know, people in America, they're not illiterate, but they don't like to read. It's just a thing. People in America, they're not dying to go out and read. The people in Germany read as many books as they do in America. People do other things in America. And everybody is a victim of this. And it's funny, you know, but actually black people read more than white people, which is a very weird thing. You wouldn't expect it to be true. Of course, black people have more to learn about who they were than white people think they have to learn.
But the thing is, the media, they don't read, or they read what they like.
"So, what do you read?"
"Well, I read Mary Higgins Clark, and I read Marquez."
"Well, do you know about this other writer?"
"No, I don't know about any other writers. I read those two, and nobody else."
"Well, what about Clinton?"
"Oh, Clinton. He reads Walter Mosley."
And so every media person in the country knew who I was, because Clinton read me. And so whenever I have to ask for something, or whenever they have to respond to, "Oh, Clinton -- books? Walter Mosley." Or I come to town and they say, "He's a writer, yeah. Well, I can ask him about Clinton anyway." You know what I mean.

Q: Where do you go to learn about people for your books?

A: I live in New York. I live in the West Village, and I get around on the subway, and I go walking around. New York is one of those equalizer places, like everybody is the same, and you can't even think that you're special, you know. Because they'll say,
"Like who the fuck you think you are man? Shit, get out my way. I'll cut your ass."
And you go, "Okay, excuse me. I'm sorry. I wrote a book."
"Yeah, so what."
It's a funny thing. Everybody's there in New York. I think it's true everywhere in the world, though. Some people like to elevate themselves. We won't go into who they are, but some people like to elevate themselves and remove themselves and have a stance in the world and that's fine. That's cool with me, but mostly all you have to do is live life and like you see people and you know people. I wrote a tiny little 10 page script about a scene I saw once. I was in a subway and there was a very neat little black couple, very neat. Two very neat little kids, very neat. We were going to Harlem, and we stopped, and a big woman comes in, black woman, big, big, with these kids that were, like, wild. And the very neat little kids went, "Oh, my God."

And the neat little couple did, too. They looked at the woman and said, "Martha? Hi." And Martha came up to them. "I haven't seen you since you move out the projects." And she came up and sat down with them and they were talking about their kids and school, and she said, "You know I can't even have my kids in school 'cause I got to go down to the court and they got me on trial," and they said, "What's wrong?" And she said, "Well, you know, I was going to cash my check, and these three niggers, they must have been watching me through the window, 'cause I come out and they grabbed me and took the money right out of where it was. I took my knife out and I got two of the motherfuckers, but the one with my money got away." And then she said, "When the cops come up, I said, 'Get him, get him,'" you know, with the knife, right, "And they arrested me." You have this image, right, of this woman with the blood dripping and these guys dying like in front of her, and she's still confused. This is months later and she's still confused. "Why did they arrest me, when the man who stole my thirty dollars was running?" But that's what life is like, right? I mean, we're all there. It's not that far away and you realize, you know, "I'm not going to steal that woman's money, or say anything mean to her, either."

Q: How did you come to write RL's Dream?

A: You know, I wrote it first to get out the idea of what I wanted to write, like who was this guy, Soupspoon. Because you see, I wanted to write about Robert Johnson, because I think Robert Johnson was one of the great men of this century. I mean, he was a bad guy. He wasn't a nice guy. But he was a genius, in the same way that Marlowe was a genius. He took a form that already existed and raised it to a level of genius. He was a rebel. He was a sexual revolutionary. He was murdered in a bar, in his '20's. He and Marlowe were like the same guy, just in different centuries. And I thought about him and I thought about him and I thought about him and I said, "How can I write about this man?" and I realized that I couldn't, because to try to write about who his girlfriend was or what he did right or what he did wrong would diminish him and you wouldn't see his greatness. And so what I decided to do was to write about this other character, Soupspoon, who now is himself dying, and trying to remember what it was that he had when he was a kid, and the major event was knowing Robert Johnson. And so that's why I wrote that chapter, and that's what I was trying to get there, and I figured it out by writing that chapter.

Q: Will Easy ever find out what happened to Daphne Monet from Devil in a Blue Dress?

A: It's very hard to say, because I discover books as I go along with them. I know he'll see his daughter again. I can't keep him away from his daughter, but I don't know about Daphne. I'm kind of thinking about putting together an outline for a screenplay that would follow a Daphne-like character, because I'm very interested in her racial thing. It's so funny. You know how people like to get mad at you -- it means that they like you. My father used to tell me that when I was in school. That the girl who used to hit me in the back liked me. And I'd say, "I wish she didn't like me so much, Dad." I've had a lot of arguments with black women, who say, "Well, he didn't even like her after he found out she was a black woman. He only was with her because he thought she was white." And they'll be mad at me, looking at me. "But it's not true," I say. "He wanted to marry her. He wanted to go with her. He didn't care that she was black." But people wouldn't believe me, you know. That racial question is so tight -- it's like a little ball of anger. So I would like to deal with it, but I don't think in the Easy books, because you can only do so much with this particular genre, which is one of the reasons I wrote RL's Dream. Some things the genre does wonderfully. Your editor comes to you and says, "You know, you're spending ten pages and all I got is sociology here, Walter. What's going on with the murder?"

Q: What's your perspective on black men as presented by black women writers?

A: Well, it's interesting, you know. We were talking about Terry [McMillan], Toni [Morrison], Alice [Walker], some others. A lot of the time black men argue like, "Well, I don't like the way she talked about it." Well, the first thing is, it's true, right? There's nothing they say which is beyond the realm of imagination. There are a lot of things that their imaginations don't even reach out to. I have an image in my mind, and I have never seen this, but it's there in my mind. It's a guy kind of dressed like Bobby Brown, right, and a woman who works in a hospital, black woman. She's wearing her white thing, you know. He's come up to her, she's just coming off work, and he's saying, "Baby, can you let me have twenty dollars." She's saying, "Why don't you go out there and get yourself a job and make you twenty dollars. I work for my money and you should be working for your money." And he's saying, "Oh, baby, I need that twenty dollars. Give me twenty dollars, I'm gonna go to JoJo, and then we got something together and something gonna be happenin, we gonna have some real money, I gonna make some," and you listen to this, and she keeps on telling him he should work, and you're kind of on her side. But the thing is, she always gives him the twenty dollars, always, and she always complains about him taking her twenty dollars. It's not the first time it happens, it's the fifth that I'm interested in, and that a lot of times when I read these books that you're talking about, I don't see that fifth time. And I would like to. But, I'm not criticizing, because there are a lot of really wonderful women writers now, a lot of wonderful books getting deeply into the characters of women, sometimes deeply into the characters of men, and I think it's wonderful that they're doing this writing. And if I'm going to complain, I should just be writing my own book, and trying to deal as well as I can with that issue, you know.
At the same time, you see a lot of men complaining about, well, "Look at Toni," like she went to the store and said, "Don't buy Walter's book. Buy my book. Buy my book." And she doesn't do that. I've seen her in bookstores, and she doesn't do that. She says, "Buy Walter's book." Terry McMillan actually says, "Oh, I love Walter's books. Go read them." It's too bad more people don't listen to her about that.

But the thing is is that you never hear black women actresses complaining about black men actors having all the jobs in Hollywood, though they do. Whoopi Goldberg is the one star, and then ther's a lot of other black women, you know, Angela Bassett, and quite a few other people who, you know, they're working, but they're barely working. They're really struggling out there. But they don't say, "Well, the men are taking our jobs." So I don't feel that either. I do like to enter that dialogue that we're like kind of co-dependent. We're both causing each other's problems. And I think that that stuff is more and more being discussed and talked about, so I have no complaints.

Q: Have you had a lot of criticism for your portrayal of racism in your books?

A: You know, it's funny. Not too much. It's odd. I don't know why. Every once in a while, somebody will write me a letter -- I have a letter that I haven't yet answered. A woman wrote me about RL's Dream. She said, "Well, it's a very good book, but all the white characters are evil in the book." Which is not true. It's just not true. Kiki, this white woman, saves Soupspoon's life, and is like a positive character. She has trouble, but everybody has trouble in the book. So I'm going to respond to that letter. But usually people don't do that to me. I don't know why. I have a good lawyer? I don't know. Two more questions and I've got to go.

Q: Do you feel stereotyped as a mystery writer?

A: It's not just the publisher. It's the genre and the people who read the books. And I agree with this. There are a lot of black mystery writers today, about twenty, twenty-five. Some of them hate the genre. They hate it. They say, "Oh, I'm writing this book, but I have a really serious book I want to write." And I go, "Well, maybe you should be writing that book and not messing with this." And you find as they go on in the genre that they'll have like thirty pages about a community where black people are living and there are issues, da da da, and the plot's just not there. In mystery, you have to stay with the plot. That's why people are reading the books. And it doesn't matter who they are. It's not like black people read my books because they're interested in a lot of sociology. They're reading it because it's fun. They can go read something else if they want to learn something. They're reading my books because they want to see what Easy's going to do next. They want to see how he gets out of the troubles. Because the identity becomes Easy and his moral stance, his issues, so I can do character development on him. I can do sociology on him. I can do where he lives and the people he knows, but as soon as I try to get out of that I'm going to leave the plot of the book. And I don't think that's good. And I think if I want to do something like that, I should go to another genre, which I do, you know. Like in RL's Dream, the plot is very simple: there's a man, he has cancer, he once played with Robert Johnson, he's dying. He wants to remember. Okay, fine. 300 pages of that. If you like that, you can read it, you know. And if you don't like that, you can read something else. One more question.

Q: Do you have any interest in reading your own work on audio?

A: Interest. I would like to do it. Audiotape people, they need a movie star. Really, because what you're trying to do is sell it. I wrote the book, and then they get Paul Winfield to read it. Paul Winfield read four of the Easy books. He did a wonderful job. Gregory Hines read RL's Dream. People may not like me, but they like Gregory. And they may not like me, but they like Paul Winfield. So it will be a while before I do that. I might read the short stories. I have some short stories coming out.
Well, anyway, guys, it's been really wonderful being here and visiting with you. [Applause]

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Brenda Wineapple and James R. Mellow
The Art of Biography

In coming seasons the Writers Institute will hold a series of readings and panels on the subject of biography. The first of these includes Brenda Wineapple and James R. Mellow. Brenda Wineapple, professor of English at Union College and a director of New York City’s Center for Biography, is the author of Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner (1989), and the recently released Sister Brother, a biography of Gertrude and Leo Stein. Both works share American exiles in Paris as a common theme: Flanner, who used the pen name Genet, for decades wrote the New Yorker’s “Letter from Paris” column, and the Steins became foremost arbiters of art and literature during their long sojourns in the “city of light.”

Wineapple shares with Mellow not just an interest in Americans in Paris, but an interest in group biography. Mellow’s trilogy of biographies of Gertrude Stein (The Charmed Circle), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Invented Lives), and Ernest Hemingway (A Life Without Consequences) overlap and interweave to produce a collective portrait of the lost generation’s life and times. The idea of group biography, of which Mellow is a foremost exponent, was first explored by him in his Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times, which won the National Book Award in 1975. He is now completing the official biography of the great photographer, Walker Evans.

Donald W. Faulkner is the Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute and teaches Contemporary Literature through the English Department.

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Robert Stone
Caretaker of Literary Tradition

In 1962 Robert Stone went to Stanford and joined a group of Stegner Fellows in the Writing Program there who, with others just a couple of years before and after that time, have become the mainstay of contemporary American literature. Of the group and the measure of its selection Wallace Stegner later said, "they could be stubborn, mule-headed,selfish, intemperate, anything, so long as they could write." Among them were Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, Ernest J. Gaines, Wendell Berry, Tom McGuane, Peter Beagle, and Judy Rascoe, among many others.

They were, as another student, Ed McClanahan, called them, "the nicest group of bad people I ever had the good fortune to fall in with." Many of those people migrated from Palo Alto to Perry Lane in Menlo Park, the quasi-left-bank of the peninsula. It was where Faye and Ken Kesey lived. Stone and his wife Janice, fresh from New York after a sojourn in New Orleans that provided the germ for Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, quickly joined what was to become a revolution of social and literary culture.

But this is prehistory to the times that have come in between then and now, times of political idealism and political assassinations, times of political and even cultural deceit, times of liberation and times of constraint, times which led to the cultures of Viet Nam, rock and roll, and apocalyptic visions. In his own estimations of such times, Robert Stone has gone incisively to the cultural core of our society. "He writes like an angel -- a fallen, hard-driving angel," one reviewer wrote of Stone's work, unnecessarily mixing awareness of Stone's craft with Stone's subjects.

Through works such as Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, novels which are as politically and culturally astute as they are brilliant, to his bitter social satires Children of Light (about Hollywood) and Outerbridge Reach (about midlife crises, middle class values, and sailing), Stone proves his bond of fealty to the writers he respects the most: Dostoevski and Conrad, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Graham Greene. A reader will find all of the big themes established by each in Stone's work, but they will be found in unique scale, uniquely Stone. He's an American master, of storytelling, of the novel, and of insight into our culture.

Donald W. Faulkner is the Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute and teaches Contemporary Literature through the English Department.

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Robert Stone Seminar and Reading

Robert Stone
And the Film of Memory

New Orleans, Vietnam, Central America, California, the Middle East. Robert Stone's novels take him far afield both physically and imaginatively, even as his themes and concerns-what is happening in American today--remain steadfast.

Stone, the author of five novels, including A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise and Children of Light, reads for the Writers Institute Thursday, October 24 at 8 p.m. in Assembly Hall of the Campus Center at the University of Albany's uptown campus.

Robert Stone was born in Brooklyn in 1937, to a family of Scottish Presbyterians and Irish Catholics who made their living as tugboat workers in New York harbor. He attended Catholic schools, which taught him how to read and write "thoroughly and grammatically," he has said. "Always kind of in love with language" he tried to put his experiences into narrative form early on to make sense out of them, and he won a short story contest for high school students.

He did not graduate from high school, however, for drinking too much beer and being "militantly atheistic." In 1955 Stone enlisted in the U.S. Navy and began to travel and, soon, to report on his travels.

Many years later, writing about Havana for Harper's in March 1992, Stone recalled, "Havana was my first liberty port, my first foreign city. It was 1955 and I was 17, a radio operator with an amphibious assault force in the U.S. Navy."

Eschewing their roles as "boozing, wenching buccaneers," Stone and a buddy set out to behave like "proper expatriates." They walked the city, they watched the people, they heard the music of conga bands and African flutes. They drank coffee slowly from small cups. "At the time," recalled Stone, "I was struck less by the frivolity of Havana than by its unashamed seriousness .... All this Spanish tragedy, leavened with Creole sensuality, made Havana irresistible. Whether or not I got it right, I have used the film of its memory ever since in turning real cities into imaginary ones." The film of its memory. Real cities made imagined ones.

Such is the written work of Robert Stone, whether he is recreating New Orleans as a metaphor for America or creating the county of Tecan in Central America, where pine trees grow on one side of a road, palm trees on the other.

After the Navy, Stone lived in New York City for a couple of years and then in New Orleans. In 1959 he married Janice Burr, and they have two children. Today the couple live in Connecticut. Mrs. Stone is a social worker.

But the road to a quiet life in New England was a long one. In 1962 Stone won a Stegner fellowship to the creative writing program at Stanford University.

Living in Menlo Park, California, he fell in with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. He knew Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and he rode the Merry Pranksters bus across the U.S. in 1964 in the trip made famous by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).

"Pleasant goofing" was how Stone described those days in an interview 20 years later. But through his experimentation with drugs in the early 1960s, he has said, he confronted a deep religious sensibility. "I discovered that my way of seeing the world was always going to be religious--not intellectual or political--viewing everything as a mystic process," he told Curt Suplee in the Washington Post in 1981. Hall of Mirrors was published in 1967, and Stone won the Faulkner Award for a "notable first novel". He wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, titled USA and starring Paul Newman. Stone had no control over the final film, which despite his and Newman's best efforts, was not successful.

In 1971 Stone spent two months as a correspondent in Vietnam, and out of that experience grew Dog Soldiers, a novel not so much about the Vietnam war as about its corrupting influence on American life. Houghton published Dog Soldiers in 1974, and Stone won the National Book Award that year. Again he worked on the movie script, and again he was disappointed in the final product, a film titled Who'll Stop the Rain (he hated the title) co-starring Tuesday Weld and Nick Nolte.

A Flag for Sunrise (Knopf, 1981) grew in part from three trips Stone made to Central America in the 1970s. While some reviewers took Stone to task for his politics and philosophy, plenty of readers found the book a suspenseful thriller with an alarming theme.

By this time Stone's life was quieter and straighter. His characters served as his alternates, he told Newsweek in 1981. "They go through all that horrendous stuff so I don't have to." And feeling hung over or strung out would interfere with his creative process.

Children of Light (Knopf, 1986), in which Hollywood goes on location to Mexico, drew on Stone's observations of the film world. In 1992 Ticknor & Fields published Outerbridge Reach, in which the journey and the story take place at sea.

Now Stone has finished a short story collection--his first--the working title of which is Bear and His Daughter. He is back at Houghton Mifflin, which plans to publish the book in spring 1997. He is "trying to finish" a novel with a contemporary Middle Eastern setting, he said in July. It too will come out from Houghton, most likely in spring 1998. Stone likes giving readings, he said, because "writing is a lonely business. You're performing solo in an interior space. Externalizing the work and getting a human response is a refreshing change." He gives "a fair number of readings each year, he said, and will even read from works in progress, which many writers will not. "You can learn about the effects of the work that way," he said. In general, then, giving a reading is a pleasant, productive experience for Stone--but not always. Asked what his worst reading experience was, he remembered immediately the time he read to the end of a story, only to find he did not have the last page. "I got to the end and it just wasn't there. I couldn't believe it--I was panic-stricken."

He made a stab at summarizing the last page, "but the whole point of the story was there, and it didn't go over," he said, still with a trace of sadness. But that was 10 or 12 years ago. "The wounds have healed," he said a moment later, a wink in his voice. The film of memory keeps running. Real cities are made imagined ones and the stories keep coming.

Debby Mayer is a freelance writer/editor and Weekend Editor for The Independent. She was previously the Publications Director for Poets & Writers, Inc.

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Robert Stone

Telling the Truth Symposium
Writing on Power

In April, 1991, noted historians and biographers David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin were members of a panel at the Writers Institute called "Writing on Power." The panel, which also included Jean Strouse, Connie Bruck, and Garry Wills, was part of a larger symposium on nonfiction writing entitled "Telling the Truth." The symposium, which brought together more than thirty of the most prominent American writers of nonfiction has been considered a once-in-a-lifetime event. In future issues of Writers Online we will bring you other panel transcriptions. Here, McCullough and Goodwin speak of historical figures ranging from LBJ and the Kennedys to Truman and Teddy Roosevelt. At issue in these anecdotal and professional reflections is the role and working process of the historian/biographer. In this election season we at the Institute find these remarks as topical now as when they were first made.

These excerpts include questions from Jean Strouse, who acted as moderator for the panel.

Doris, you had extraordinary access to Lyndon Johnson who was notorious as an overwhelming and controlling presence in everything he did. How did he try to manage what you would think and say and how did you maintain a critical distance?

Well, he tried every moment of our living time together to manage everything I thought or did. I was only twenty-four years old when I started working for President Johnson and essentially went to the ranch to help him on his memoirs. On the one hand, access can be a wonderful thing. It meant that I could spend hours at a time with him. He’d wake me up early in the morning when he couldn’t sleep. He’d talk to me during the day. He’d talk to me at night.

On the other hand, the problem was these wonderful fabulous, marvelous stories that he told me. I discovered as I went along the way that more than half of them weren’t true, which is a problem if you’re a biographer. My favorite example of that was one time I was swimming with him in his pool at the ranch - - he had this incredible pool that was filled with floating phones that came by on floating desks and floating sandwiches that came by on floating trays. In fact it was so filled with floaties, as he called them, you couldn’t swim in it. But it mattered little to him since he just wanted to sort of side stroke up and down this pool. Anyway, that day he was still President at this time and Hugh Sidey had written this wonderful book on him in which he’d talked about a speech that Johnson gave to the troops, stirring with patriotism about the fact that his great-great-great-grandfather had died at the battle of the Alamo and Sidey said the only problem was that he didn’t have a great-great-great-grandfather that had died at the Alamo, just wished he did so much that he made him up. So as we’re swimming around, I said to him, “How could you do that?” And he says to me, “Oh, these journalists. They’re such sticklers for detail.” And then he goes on to tell me for a fabulous half hour how his great-great-great-grandfather really died at the battle of San Jacinto and I hear why that battle is much more important in the history of Texas than the Battle of the Alamo. By the time he’s finished, he’s so convincing, he’s so overwhelming, I think to myself “Sidey is being a stickler for detail”, until several years later, as I was working on my biography on him, I discover his great-great-great-grandfather didn’t die at San Jacinto either, that he had actually died at home in bed.

So part of the problem was to sort out what this extraordinary character, whom I was listening to for eighteen hours a day, was telling was part of his dreams, his hopes, his desires and what was actually true. The deeper problem, in a sense, was the psychological maneuvering that was going on between us as it went on between everybody he worked with.

I can remember when I first started going down to the ranch , he wanted to make me feel special, and I later learned that he did this with everybody, but he would place me in the front of his car. He had this car that he took all visitors around the ranch with and the Prime Minister of Britain could be there or the Prime Minister of Germany but, during those few months when I was being made to feel special, I would be in the front of the car and the Prime Minister would be in the back of the car and he’d be taking us all on a tour of the ranch saying, “Look, Doris. Look at the jumping antelope. Look there’s my birth house.” And you’d feel terrific. And then finally I remember one weekend I didn’t visit him at the ranch and he got angry with me so the next weekend Dean Rusk was in the front of the car and I was in the back of the car and he’s saying, “Look, Dean. Look at the jumping antelope” and I felt, for this terrible moment, like I’d been exiled to Siberia. I suddenly looked at myself and I said, “What is the matter with me? He has turned this situation of this closed car, which I don’t even want to be in. I’ve seen these stupid jumping antelope a million times. He’s made me feel terrible because I did something wrong, not visiting him last weekend.” And I made a decision that day, that despite the biographer’s desire to be close to the subject, to be too close to Lyndon Johnson would be too dangerous to your own psychic health, and even though, at that moment, he was trying to persuade me to try to work for him full time, and to come down to the ranch, offering me every incentive. He would say, “What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you come down here?” And I’d say to him, “Well. I had grown up on the East Coast”. “No problem. You’ll travel all around the world with me. You’ll see the East Coast. You’ll see Russia. You’ll see China.” Finally he said, “If it’s boys you want, I’ll invite a millionaire down every weekend. If you want to write, there’s a lake and I’ll get you a house on the lake. You intellectuals, you like sky . There’s a blue sky.” Of course, the lake was LBJ. And then, finally, I realized that I could never withstand that kind of power that he exerted. So I said to him, “I can’t do it. I’d love to work for you part-time, but I need to be back in Cambridge.” I was teaching at that time at Harvard. He said,” No way. It’s all or nothing. “ And what seemed to me at that time like, perhaps, a sad decision, I decided I couldn’t do it.

Then the last day of his presidency, he called me into his office, and he was sitting all alone. All the rest of the offices had already been dismantled to make way for Nixon. It was almost like an urban renewal project, just this one character sitting in the office that was still there. He said to me, “Will you come and work for me part-time?” No reference to this previous all or nothing and then, of course, I said I would. For what that meant was that in the next four years until he died, even though when I was with him on the ranch I was subjected to his kinds of manipulations, which were legendary, I still could get away. I could go back. And that physical distance was much more than the thousands of miles between Austin and Boston. My life was not Lyndon Johnson, my life was my own. And with that kind of powerful person, I needed that distance. Even so, I was always in danger of losing the game because, I can remember, he would try to make me feel close to him in ways that were so preposterous that only now I can laugh at them. One morning he woke me up and he said, “We’ve got to talk today about our relationship and all I could think of was when I was in high school I had this boyfriend, Moose, who always wanted to talk about our relationship, so I got very nervous. And, especially, I got more nervous as he suddenly took me to this lake, with a picnic and wine and sandwiches and a red checkered tablecloth, and here it comes, I thought, all these things I’ve heard about him. It’s about to begin. And he says, “More than any other woman I’ve ever known...” and I thought, “Oh, god.” And then he said, “...you remind me of my mother.” I laughed too, at the time, or at least I tried not to laugh in front of him.

Now when I think about it, however, what I saw in those last years of his life, was a vulnerable man who was very lonely and who reached out to me, for whatever reasons. I don’t think I really reminded him of his mother. She was about six feet tall, I’m five foot two. She had this huge breast. She was, however, in his mind, an intellectual and, somehow, he was combining those two things. But in those last years of his life he felt totally bereft of any kind of companionship, exiled to his ranch, no hobbies to take up his time. His family loved him, but that hole in him that needed love was so great that they couldn’t fill it. He needed the applause of thousands, not two or three women or a couple daughters. And somehow, in that period of time when he was so vulnerable, and I think, allowing himself, if not forcing himself, to die, I happened to be there.

Does that affect what you write? Probably. I tried to write a book that was critical of him, where I thought it needed to be critical, and yet there was an overwhelming and sort of central empathy that I felt towards this man, because I saw him at the end of his life. My husband saw him in his life, worked for him during his Presidency, had far more negative views on him, than I did. We both argue, all the time. I took whatever protections I could to get distanced from him. And as I say, they were not simply the biographer’s protections. Johnson, even physically, when he talked to you, ranged himself over you so much, you could hardly breathe. He didn’t even allow that normal distance between human beings. There’s a wonderful story, when George Wallace came to the White House during the height of the Selma Civil Rights struggle. Lyndon Johnson sticks him in a couch that then sinks to the ground, and Wallace is only five feet two, in the first place. And Johnson, at six feet four, sits in this hard rocking chair, and then leans over to Wallace, with his nose practically touching Wallace and saying, “Now Governor, you wanted to see me?” Well, by the end of that time, Wallace comes out and says, “Oh, my God. Thank God I got out of there. He would have had me comin’ out for Civil Rights.” He used every known technique in power, humiliation, and the next day, after he humiliated an aide, he would buy them a car and have it waiting there. And, as I say, I was twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five years old. I only instinctively knew that, somehow, the only way to deal with him, was to be as empathetic as I could, but to get distance whenever I could. And, I must say, to my eternal embarrassment at times, even though he’s now been dead since 1973, whenever I work on something new, I still feel his presence. If he had ever known I worked on a Kennedy book after the Johnson book, he would say, “How could you betray me?” And, even worse, the Kennedy book was three times as long as the book on him. But, there were times when I worked on the Johnson book, and also times, to be honest, when I worked on the Kennedy book, where I also had access, that I would have given anything to have no access. It all seems to the outside world, I’m sure, as if you’re so lucky, because you’ve got internal information someone else might not have. But in this book I’m working on now, on Franklin and Eleanor, where I simply interview people as a historian, where I don’t have to worry if people are wondering what is my relationship with this character and what about my husband’s relationship to the Kennedys and am I really friendly with them? It’s a great relief, but on the other hand, would I ever give up that experience with Lyndon Johnson? Never.

David, you’ve talked about the masks that prominent public figures often wear and how biographers and historians have to get behind that public persona to see what really goes on. Would you tell us about how you go about that?

There is a painting in the White House of Theodore Roosevelt, by John Singer Sargeant and there’s a wonderful story that goes with the painting. Sargeant was hanging around the White House for three or four days, hoping to get a chance to see the President, to talk with him about when the President might be willing to pose for his portrait. He was troubled with the problem of access, you see. When might he see the President? And, one morning, quite by chance, as Roosevelt was descending the main stairway, Sargeant was at the foot of the stairs and he said, “Mr. President, I was hoping to have a chance to talk with you because I’d like to know when you would be willing to pose for me.” And Roosevelt said, “Now.” And there he is in the portrait, with his hand on the newel post, standing at the foot of the stairs, in the White House. It’s a great portrait because it shows more of the subtleties of Theodore Roosevelt than any other portrait ever done of him. I think it penetrates the mask in a way that no other painter did. The optimistic, out-going, bully, charging up San Juan Hill character in the popular mind is not the President that’s in that painting, at all.

Now I’ve worked with two presidents so far. And politicians professionally need masks even more than the rest of us do. It’s part of their equipment and it isn’t just that they have one, they often have a whole set of them, a whole supply, depending on the situation. One president, Theodore Roosevelt, of course, was long dead and gone. I couldn’t reach him, except through one or two living people. And I never saw him. Truman, I did see one night. I was coming out of the subway station at the St. George Hotel in 1956, at the time of the Presidential campaign, when Averill Harriman was running for President. As I came out, there was a little crowd gathered by the entrance to the hotel, and somebody told me that Harriman was coming. I waited, and up came the big car and out stepped Averill Harriman, very tall, elegant, just like one would expect. And then, out behind him popped, Harry Truman. I had never seen a president before. This was my first president and I will never forget my first impression, my first thought, which was, “He’s in color.” He was in vivid color, a very high color, and his eyes were made quite large by his glasses. He seemed to exude life and a youthfulness that supervised me. He was not grey little Harry that one had been led to believe or the black and white of television and newspaper reproduction would indicate. Now Truman, of course, we all know from Earl Miller’s book, Plain Speaking and from James Whitemore’s portrayal in Give ‘em Hell Harry, is plain spoken, straight from the shoulder, good old Harry from Independence, Missouri. Simple man. Well, he isn’t. He isn’t a simple man, by any means. And, none of us are simple, none of us are uncomplicated. And, I venture to say, no politician who rises to become the politician of the land is ever a simple person. The question is, how do you find out about them? How do you get to know them? The answer is by a lot of hard work and the hard work isn’t just in the research. I love it when a book comes out. Somebody will come up and say, “ I read your book.” “Thank you.” “I’ll bet you did a lot of research.” You do do a lot of research in a lot of different ways, but you also do a lot of hard writing. And one of the ways you get behind the mask is by writing. The reason for that is because writing forces you to think, contrary to the popular impression. Paul Weiss, who taught philosophy at Yale, used to say, “I’m not as bright as my students. I find I have to think before I write.” The masks of a man like Harry Truman can be circumvented by talking to people who worked with him, by talking to people who lived next door, or people who were related to him or people who covered him as reporters. The problem, if you’re dealing with a president who died, say twenty years ago, as Harry Truman did, is that there are a great many people around who can provide that information, a surprising number. And everybody wants interviews. They say, “Have you thought about talking to so and so.” So it becomes a geometric progression. I’ve now interviewed well over a hundred and forty people. I’ve decided that I think I’m going to set my next book in the fifteenth century, when there’s no chance of finding anybody who knew anything about it.

Then you deal with the problem that I have right now, for example, of the same person telling you different versions of the same story. I have interviewed, at great length, Clark Clifford. Now Clark Clifford’s reminiscences, his memoirs are running in the New Yorker and will soon be out in a book. Well, the versions of various incidents that he’s described in his memoirs are not quite the way they are in my interviews, so which do I use? The answer is, you have to make an intuitive judgment call. You’re the umpire at the plate over and over and over again. And you make those judgment calls more accurately and fairly and sympathetically, I think, the longer you’re at the business of being a writer and the longer you’re at work on your subject. I’ve been now working on Truman for nine years. I know so much more than I did when I wrote the first part of the book that I’m going to have to go back and rewrite a lot of the first part of the book because I just didn’t see it quite so clearly then. Letters and diaries, of course, are immensely valuable, and one of the reasons I decided I wanted to do Harry Truman was that Harry Truman poured himself out on paper. He was a 19th century person who didn’t like to use the telephone, never got used to the telephone. He would write letters to his mother and his sister and his cousins and to people who were in his administration or who were in his mind and in his heart. Most of the recipients, interestingly, are women. This man who took up these extremely, in those days, male dominated, if not exclusively male, preoccupations such as the military and politics, never really had any one close to him except the women in his life and the letters to the women were all written from the heart. Among other reasons, he never knew that he was going to be a somebody in history until he was well on in years. He was past fifty by the time he first went to Washington as a senator.

It was all a huge advantage for me. In writing biography like processing ore, you need much, much more than you’re ever going to use. Otherwise, you’re reaching, you’re groping, you’re hypothesizing and saying what if and so forth and that’s a terrible way to write a book, or to understand a human being. People are very hard to know, very, very hard to know. They’re hard to know even if you live with them or if you know them personally. I’ve known Richard Rhodes now for a number of years, for example, and we’ve had dinner and exchanged letters. And it wasn’t until his book came out, Hole in the World, that I had any idea about his childhood and this immensely formative experience. And to discover something like that about someone you think you know, and then discover you didn’t know, is very exciting, and very humiliating, in a way. It reminds you of how hard it is and how important it is and that’s what happens with a character like Harry Truman. He is, by no means, simple. He is, by no means, James Whitmore, nor is he, by any means, the character in Earl Miller’s book. There’s some of that to him, that’s one of his masks, and because people wear a mask doesn’t mean the mask isn’t real. It’s their mask, but they have an assortment of them. To say that the "give ‘em hell Harry" of the forty-eight campaign is not really Harry Truman...sure that’s Harry Truman. But that’s one of many Harry Trumans that there are. And I don’t really think that you can understand what happened in our century without understanding this man.

The times in which history, events, our lives turn on this unfathomable quality called personality, or more importantly and more rarely character, are legion. I don’t think you can understand why certain things happen unless you can understand the people who were there and the order in which information and events came to them. This is a primary reason for the narrative mode, not just because it’s a good way to hold the reader, but because it’s an intellectually honest, realistic way to appraise why people did what they did, when they did, because you cannot assume that they knew all the answers and, of course, the biggest thing they don’t know, which is exactly what we don’t know - - is how it’s all going to come out...

I would just like to say a couple of things about the lure and the risk of writing about so-called powerful people, particularly people who have immense political power, in our system.

Theodore Roosevelt said very little about power, but what he did say was that it inevitably involves both responsibility and danger. And I think it’s probably the element of danger that makes it so attractive a subject to write about. Tension, danger are the elements, the lifeblood of any good story. Your main character gets in a jam, gets in trouble. Joseph is put down in the hole by his brothers. How is he going to get out? In a character like Harry Truman, I’m blessed because he’s in trouble of one form or another all the time, so I don’t really have to worry too much about how I’m going to sustain this story. The powerful figure is also, of course, in the limelight, and if he’s in our political limelight that means, particularly in this part of our own century, that there is an enormous amount of material about him.

If you’ve ever run your hand through a bin of grain, you know that the deeper you go the more it comes down. And that’s what doing research in some of these presidential libraries is like. The more you dig, the more that comes down on top of you and you think, my God, I’m never going to get out of this place. I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. And one could, literally, spend all of a lifetime, in the Truman Library say, and never get through all of it. There are all the oral histories, for example. Over four hundred transcriptions of oral histories. There is film now, photographs, extremely important sources to get to know your subjects. You can sit there and watch him on camera, see how he moves his hands, how he turns his head. Most active life in any profession is made up very largely of talk. And in politics that’s particularly true. An awful lot of what’s decided and what is agreed to and what goes on is talk, so how can you recover that talk? Where is it recorded? Or who was there and what does he or she remember of what was said? It goes on and on. The surplus, the volume of material that you have to work with, this raw ore is so great that it becomes, in fact, a problem. There is no good, one volume biography of Harry Truman, as amazing as that may seem. The books about Truman are either autobiographical in spirit or they are essentially memoirs, such as his daughter’s book about him. And one of the reasons is because there’s so much you have to deal with. If you’re working with a character who had a long life like Truman, nearly ninety years, you also have the very difficult problem in writing of a lifetime that goes along more or less normally with the usual quantity of raw material to work with and then suddenly they become a figure of power and suddenly there’s this balloon of information. If you could find one diary of one character who worked in the same office in the Independence courthouse at the time Harry was a county judge, let’s say, one diary that would have been a gold mine, a dream find. When you get to the presidency there are eight diaries, wonderful diaries, by very observant, bright careful people who are writing it down every night. One of them was right in the White House. So what happens to the form that you’re working with? How do you keep this banquet you’ve been preparing from suddenly getting different in character, different in taste, quality, everything? Because, if you’re the biographer, you have to sustain, more or less, the same tone of voice, the same problem all the way through. Then in life, unlike in theater, major characters can often appear late in the story. Suddenly on stage comes Dean Atcheson, in the third or fourth act. And, of course, it’s very difficult to introduce an important new character to your audience, to your reader, very late in the game, but you have to do it, because you can’t pretend Dean Atcheson didn’t come on stage. Then, if they are a powerful political person, there is a certain obligatory amount of history that has to be explained, and you can’t assume that your reader, particularly if it’s a relatively young reader, is going to know what you’re talking about when you mention the Marshall Plan or the Berlin airlift. You have to tell them what that is. Whereas, if you’re writing about somebody who wasn’t involved in such momentous history, you can skip right by that.

I feel that in many ways, my earlier books were also exercises in biography but there I was dealing with characters who were not in the political limelight. They were largely people in technology and science, in medicine and civil engineering. And they weren’t on stage, and so they were very candid about their lives and their diaries and their letters. By the way, if any of you want to achieve immortality, I’ll tell you exactly how to do it: start keeping a diary. Write down everything you think, feel, see about the world around you. Do it every day for the rest of your life and leave it with a reputable library. Future historians will be quoting you for hundreds of years. The importance of the diarist, particularly the diarist who is on hand is probably disproportionately large, because there is somebody who’s telling you what was happening.

We might also ask ourselves a very important question. Why bother to read a biography? Why bother to read history? You can look up Teddy Roosevelt or Harry Truman in the encyclopedia. I think the answer is that you only really know something when you feel it. And a good book makes you feel what that story, what that life, that time in history, those moments in Washington, were about. E.M. Forster, in his wonderful book on writing, uses the analogy of the difference between story, plot and just sequence of events. Sequence of events as, let’s say presented in the encyclopedia, would be the king died and then the queen died. Forster said a story becomes a story when you say “the king died and the queen died of grief.” That’s the beginning of biography. That’s the beginning of knowing about the king and the queen because you feel it through the empathy of being a fellow human being. And what everybody in this conference is talking about, and I think particularly the people who are talking about science, is the inevitably fascinating, inevitably impossible subject called people. That’s what history is about, about people, human beings. We want to know about them because we don’t see any reason to confine our experience of being alive to our own time, anymore than we want to confine our experience of being alive to one place. We can go out, as it were, into this great well of human experience called the past which, of course, wasn’t the past at all. It’s unfair to call it the past. It was somebody else’s present. That’s all it is. It has a different name. People didn’t walk around saying “Isn’t it wonderful living in the past? Isn’t this fascinating?”

It is all well and good to talk about reading history and biography in order to better understand our system of government or to be able to predict the future, but what historians were telling us that the Berlin Wall was going to come down? Or that all of Eastern Europe was going to throw off this Communist weight? Not one, anymore than the CIA or the wizards who write for the OpEd page. Nobody knew. Nobody understood. There is no foreseeable future. We read history. We read biography and we write biography, I’m convinced, to enlarge the experience of being alive, to enlarge the experience of being a human being. And it’s going to go on and on and just because one writer does a portrait of Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be and won’t be and must be many others who will do it. On and on. I never wanted to write about a politician, and in particularly, I did not want to write about a president. That was not going to be my way in my career. That seemed to me was too obvious, too hackneyed. Everybody does it and we make too much of these presidents. But then I began to see what a story this guy is and that he’s a certifiable member of the human race and that he left lots of himself for us to look at, in a way, probably no president’s ever going to do again. It’s wonderful work, too, a wonderful way to live.

I must say, listening to you, and knowing it’s the ninth year of your work on this and hearing this wonderful enthusiasm, is such a great relief to me as I’m now only on my fourth year of this FDR book and I kept telling myself, “If I take longer to write this book than it took to fight the war itself, it’ll be so embarrassing." Now I don’t care. I can go on for years more and feel okay.

I think you’ve touched on what is the most wonderful thing for people who write biographies— that somehow, even though it takes so much of your time, there’s that insight into human nature that affects your own life very deeply and, we hope, the reader’s. I know, for me, that experience of thinking and writing and watching Lyndon Johnson at the end of his life, with nothing to fall back on, because power had been the only thing that mattered to him, made me know that somehow, it wasn’t worth that. He called me two days before he died and he told me that he was reading Carl Sandburg’s biography on Lincoln and trying to make Lincoln come to life and if he couldn’t do that, he said, then no one was every going to remember him, and maybe his search for immortality through the public was a false search, that he would’ve been better off spending his time with his children and his wife and his children’s children in turn. But it was, of course, only a passing thought for a man who all of his life had searched for public immortality. But, I somehow learned from him that if you spend so much time in pursuit of one thing, at the expense of play, at the expense of love, perhaps your life won’t be as balanced as you hope. I know it affected my life as I went along. So, too, as I listen to Rose Kennedy tell me that somehow, even if she could come back again and her children could be born again, that she is convinced they would choose who they were even if they died at forty-three and forty-six and twenty-eight and twenty-nine, because they’d lived such rich adventurous lives, that that was more important than a long mediocre life. I sort of believed her and then I looked back at my own children and my own life and I’ve decided that the dailiness of everyday life matters more, perhaps, than that extraordinary success that some people can achieve in the short run. So as long as you can think about these big things through your biographical subjects, no wonder you have a David McCullough who can be so enthusiastic after nine years. It’s a great treat.

I’d like to ask you, how do you decide how you are going to begin?

On the Kennedy book, I can remember the day that I first walked into St. Stephen’s Church, the Catholic church in the North End where the Fitzgerald family, Rose Kennedy’s family, had gone when she was a young girl. The minute I walked into that church and saw the beauty and luxury and majesty of that place, in contrast to what I knew about the surrounding slums when I was opening the book in 1863 with the birth of John Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy’s father, I knew that that was my opening. That somehow it would have within it the contrast between these dirty, terrible conditions under which the Irish had to live and why the church meant so much for them in providing a haven of beauty and privacy and gorgeous smells in contrast to that world they lived in. But then, what made it even more possible, I found a church historian who knew what the ritual was like in the 19th century when children were baptized. I found maps that allowed me to carry the father of the kid carrying him along the streets and knowing what streets and what shops he passed on the way. I knew the weather the day that the kid was being baptized and I found out that it was a very cold, snowy, bitterly bad day out and nowadays we baptize kids three or six months later and I asked myself why are they baptizing him one day later? Which then allows me to go back and think that three out of ten kids are dying before the age of one at that time in 1863. Life was so fragile that that baptism was so necessary. At any rate, it was more a visceral feeling as soon as I walked in that church. I thought this is the beginning of the Kennedy family story in a place in the North End in Boston in a church and it never wavered from that moment.

I think that where you begin is so important. It affects the whole book and it’s a very big decision with my Truman book. I begin with his grandparents, a very conventional way. His grandparents coming up the Missouri River in the 1840’s to settle in Jackson County, which is the westernmost part of Missouri, which was then the westernmost part of the United States. They were pioneers, literally going to break the prairie sod and all of that and I felt it was important to establish what his background, what his very legitimate American, authentic middle American frontier background was.

When I was a kid, my brother and I hiked to a top of a mountain. Sometimes we saw a house down below, a long way down, maybe eight, ten miles, with all trees all the way down. He was three or four years older and he’d had some geometry, so he said, “Now when we climb up a tree to see where the house was we have to get this exactly right because if we’re a few feet off when we start up here, we’ll be several miles off by the time we’re down there.” And I always think about that in starting a book, that if we’re a few feet off up here, we’re going to really miss the mark. It’s so important because you establish not just a tone of voice or the beginnings of a story, but you really are establishing a compact, a bond, an understanding with your reader. In a sense, you’re saying, “Come on. Come over here and look at this with me. This is interesting. This is worthwhile. This is going to be quite a ride we’re going on.”

And with biography, which is a very different problem than writing history, you can’t leave your subject very long. You can’t say, “Well we’ve had enough of him for awhile. Let’s go on to something else for a chapter.” I also think that, and I know all of us here have demonstrated this, it’s very, very important, and very little understood generally, how important it is, to understand the surrounding characters who are influencing your main character. So when you’re writing a biography, you’re not just writing about exhibit A, you’ve got all these other people that you must understand, and they can’t be seen as fixed entities on the landscape. You know, this is the strong supportive sister, this is the weak, indolent brother, this is the decorative mother who....they’re not those things. They may have been that on March 5th when he was six years old, but maybe when he was twenty-five years old all that had changed because no one stays the same, everybody is evolving, everybody’s growing, changing, and it’s affecting your main character. So you’ve got many balls in the air and you have to understand all those people, because certainly your main character understood them. The Theodore Roosevelt story, for example, of his childhood, is really much more about understanding that swarm of a family that he moved with everywhere and how hard it was for him to break out of that swarm. And when he breaks out of the swarm, he also breaks out of his asthma, at the same time. It has almost nothing to do with his lifting weights and throwing medicine balls. It has to do with getting out of that family. And so you have to understand that family and why does Elliott, the brother, who’s the one who seems to be the pick of the litter, handsome, charming, and outgoing, take a nosedive whereas this peculiar, sickly and frightened little brother becomes the emblem of masculine, positive turn- of- the- century America. Teddy Roosevelt. How does that happen? Well, I contend that you have to understand Elliott very well in order to understand Theodore. That makes the job harder and a lot more interesting....

One of the reasons why memoirs, with very few exceptions Grant being notable, are not worthy things in our history. When you think about it, if only our politicians, once they got out of power, could reflect upon what it was like to be in power, they would have a stance no one else would have. But I remember the experience of helping Lyndon Johnson on his memoirs and he couldn’t, ever, divorce himself from the thought of, “Well, I might be back in power someday.” For example, I just took down all the words he would tell me, which were often wonderful. He spoke in incredibly crude language and they were fabulous stories about everybody. Once he was talking about Wilbur Mills in the House, how he never lets anything out of his committee unless he’s sure it’s going to pass the entire House of Representatives, and Johnson made this wonderful prediction, that turned out to be true, saying, “He’s so worried about his face...saving face. He’s going to fall on his ass someday.” Which is exactly what he did at the reflecting pool. But, nevertheless, I wrote it down and put it in the draft. And he says, “I can’t say that. Wilbur Mills may be Speaker of the House someday.” So out it came. And, at one point, he had in something bad about Bobby Kennedy and everybody liked what he was saying. They thought it would sell books. So he said, “Well, the only way I’ll leave that in is I have to say something good about Jackie Kennedy to balance it.” As if it’s a balancing act, somehow. The very people who you think would be able to think about their own experience, obviously, can never distance themselves. I think that’s true for the advisers around them, too. They write very important books that we need for the moment, in terms of diaries and sources, but they’re often the least analytical about what’s actually happening at the time.

I would just like to say a word about journalism. The degree to which a biographer, particularly for a character who lived awhile back, can reach his or her subject through the newspaper coverage of the day is just amazing. We go back and read the papers, say of the 1940’s or ‘50’s. You know, great newspapers in their prime. Washington Post. The Baltimore Sun. The St. Louis Post Dispatch. The Kansas City Star. The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune. The people who were writing for those papers and the columnists were really good. Marquis Childs, for example. You read his columns, and what they were saying and what they were seeing and what they were recording is so valuable. And they were, of course, doing this with no time. That’s the thing that you always have to remember about journalism. Sure they make mistakes. Certainly there are errors in there and the conveying of misconceptions and so forth, but you also consider that they were right there, they saw it happen and they wrote it down and there it is. They were competing with each other. And, therefore, the competition, in a way, was keeping them honest to a degree.

Now, of course, they did not include a lot that we take for granted today in coverage. But there’s even an exception to that. The Time-Life system, as you may know, was to have reporters who filed all that they knew, not all that they would print but all that they knew, into the New York office. And then the New York editors would distill that and make it into an article. The system still works the same way, except they do have bylines now or at least credits. Those original files have survived. Now, for example, at the Truman Library there are all the files of a man named McNaughton who covered Capitol Hill and Washington politics in general. And it’s everything that he was hearing, everything that Sam Rayburn was telling him, most of it not for attribution. It’s a gold mine of material. Just to talk about the service that journalists do for us now is to miss the very large point of the service they’re going to do for how this generation is written about a hundred years from now, and what they’ve done for us in times past. The newspapers of the past are one of the greatest of all sources for writing history and biography and its a wonderful thing that most libraries have all this material and it’s there for everybody. This isn’t some strange profession that no one can come into because it’s only for a certain people, the few who know how to do it. Nobody ever told me how to do this. I imagine that’s true of you all. I was an English major in college. I’ve sort of backed into this kind of work and I could’ve been saved a lot of time, I’m sure had I been a history major or had I an advanced degree. But, in a sense I’m glad I didn’t, because I’ve worked out my own way and it’s not according to any prescribed formula. . .

I want to follow up on what David said before about how we back into becoming what we became, in this case historians or biographers. I remember once being on a panel on a very different subject on baseball, which is my totally irrational love, and telling the panelists a story which then turned into an understanding and an insight into my own life about history that I had never known. I was telling them about the fact that when I was five or six years old my father had taught me how to keep score in that wonderful miniaturized way that every symbol you put down can allow you to recreate the total baseball game. He went one step further, he never told me that the scores would be reported and described in the newspapers the next day. He kept that from me, so that I thought that without me, he would never know what was happening to our beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. And, you know, I’ve always known this. I had told the story before, but on that panel somebody turned to me and said, “Did you ever think that that might be the source of your love for history?” I suddenly started to remember sitting on the porch with my father and the great pleasure it was to recreate history through all these miniature symbols. And I suddenly looked at this guy and said, “You’re right. It’s probably were it was.”. . .

QUESTION: When you’ve got overwhelming personalities who are powerful people, does the vision that the biographer focuses on them obscure the question of how much power they actually exercise during their leadership reign?

Sometimes the most interesting things about your person are simply personal stories that overwhelm a person, or when there’s something interesting that happens, that may have nothing to do with advancing a policy, changing the country. With Lyndon Johnson, for example, civil rights was changed permanently, in part because of him, and in part because of everything else that happened during his administration and the civil rights movement being out there. But you could easily write a book about Lyndon Johnson and write about everything else about him and, somehow, miss that because he wouldn’t direct you toward it. And I think making that distinction about what difference did this person make in history requires a different level of thinking. It requires an analytical level of mind, and you have to almost distance yourself from the person so that you don’t think they either did too much or too little. If you’re in your belittling stage, you may think they did too little. If you’re in your celebratory state, you may think they did too much. And to really sort out what impact this individual had versus the other people around him, versus Congress, versus the forces out there, versus the women’s movement, versus the Civil Rights Movement. That’s where thinking takes place, and I think the view of the person can obscure that thinking.

I think that the more you know your character, the more you know about who was telling him what and who was important to him, whom he trusted. All of those elements makes the understanding of the power he wielded much clearer and I’m somewhat, of course, influenced by my particular subject. I don’t want this to sound naive, but the ’48 election, for example, which is a much more complicated story than it’s usually told, really does show us that the power is in us. The power is in the people, in this system. And Truman understood that, because he believed it, to his boots, that was among the reasons that he won, contrary to the opinion of everybody who thought he was going to lose. He never doubted for a minute that he was going to win, because he understood a few very basic things about how the system works. One of the reasons he understood how the system works is that he was a professional politician, and if you follow his life and his profession, just as you would study the profession of an engineer or a physician or a ballerina, you begin to understand why they’re doing things the way they do, in order to maintain this thing about power. Truman said, “All the power of the Presidency comes down to whether or not he can persuade people.” Roosevelt called it the “bully pulpit”. Truman never had that power to persuade the way FDR did, or in the way that Reagan had, and that’s a very serious lack in a leader, in our system, particularly. But, yes, I think the more you understand your character and the more you understand your character’s work, profession, how the profession has evolved, what has he learned about the profession in one stage of his cross to the next, then the more you understand how the system works. And I, personally, feel that one of the things you learn is that we’re much better off electing professional politicians to this office of the Presidency.

David, can I ask you a question? Is it just nostalgia or is it true that that ’48 election, when Truman traveled around the country on a whistle stop train, he grew in a way that our current politicians seem to be diminished by the form of the election? It seems to me that he was touching people, and listening to them and learning from them while these characters sitting in front of three-minute TV spots today are doing just the opposite.

Well, it is true. And he did evoke a response from the people. Of course, you have to understand what he’s running against... Dewey, who had none of that quality. He felt confined by the Presidency. He disliked living in the White House, so it was a release for him to be on the campaign trail. He wore everybody out. He was a very tough man, physically. And one of the misconceptions about him is he’s this little fellow. He was very rugged and physically fit. He was much more physically fit than, I think, any President of this century, except possibly Theodore Roosevelt. That played a part, but he knew how to talk to those people who came down to the train. Not to them, because he was one of them and he was a Jacksonian. All that mattered, and it all added up. Truman raises the wonderful question that a biographer loves to deal with..."Was he transformed by becoming president into this world leader of some genuine consequence, or were the qualities there all along?” The one scene that I absolutely adore and I think it has to do with this business of profession concerns when Truman went to the ’48 Democratic convention in Philadelphia. They wanted anybody but Harry Truman to be their nominee and he was kept backstage for hours, waiting, and there was no air conditioning and he and vice-president-to-be, Senator Alvin Barkley, sat out in this awful place with a railroad track behind. What you don’t see on television, what you don’t see in the photograph, waiting to go on stage. They kept him there hour after hour after hour. Truman and Barkley were perspiring and the aides were exhausted and everybody was saying, "Isn’t this a terrible thing to do to the President of the United States? This is the greatest humiliation that a party or an American people could subject their President to.” And lots was written in that spirit. Then you read what Truman and Barkley thought of that. They thought it was just fine. That’s what you do in politics. You do a lot of sitting and waiting. And they talked about their children and they talked about old time stories and they had a fine time. They didn’t mind the fact that it was ugly or hot or anything and when it was their time to go on, they went on. They were pros. No self-pity. No complaint. This is the job. This is what we do. And when you begin to see that professional aspects of it, then you begin to see, I think, not just your character but a lot about us.

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Telling the Truth Symposium

Jane Cooper
New York State Poet

Last December when Jane Cooper was awarded the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit and officially named New York State Poet (1995-1997) she joined an impressive and exclusive list of poets who have served in that role. Among them are such notables as Stanley Kunitz, Robert Creeley, Audre Lord, and Richard Howard, Cooper’s immediate predecessor. But at the time of the ceremony illness unfortunately prevented Cooper from attending in person, so she did the next best thing, appearing in a specially produced New York State Writers Institute video. Jane read several of her poems to the audience, graciously (as ever) accepted her prestigious honor and thanked all who had gathered in the Clark Auditorium of the New York State Museum on that snowy December evening. Cooper’s resilient spirit shone brightly in Albany that night. It will be our good fortune to have Jane Cooper appear in person this May as part of the Writers Institute’s 1996 Visiting Writers Series.

Cooper’s most recent book, Green Notebook, Winter Road, appeared in 1994 and is her most comprehensive work to date. "On the Edge of the Moment," the book’s first section, is precisely where readers will find themselves. The book opens with one of the title poems, “Green Notebook,” an inviting, almost beckoning piece.

Nameless. Slowly gathering. . . . It seems I am on the edge
of discovering the green notebook containing all the poems of my life,
I mean the ones I never wrote. . . .

Cooper’s full and steady presence underpins many of these poems, imbuing them with that felt camaraderie that has come to characterize Cooper and her work.

The notebook is under my fingers. I read. My companions read.
Now thunder joins in, scurry of leaves. . . .

With Green Notebook, Winter Road Cooper gently folds the energies of the past into a comfortable collaboration with the present. In "The Infusion Room," a starkly "matter-of-fact" look at what Cooper has called the "culture of illness," hideous and relentless medical realities are cushioned by some of the "smaller" realities of patients’ lives, like comic books, walkmans, Cadillacs, colleges, taxicabs and talk-show hosts. Deftly and purposefully paired with "The Infusion Room" is a short prose piece, "The Children’s Ward," which delicately recounts, with the precision of a child’s eye, Cooper’s early childhood encounter with serious illness. Together, these two pieces comprise "Give Us This Day," Green Notebook, Winter Road’s third section.

Since 1969, when Cooper’s first book, The Weather of Six Mornings: Poems appeared, she has published three major works, Maps and Windows: Poems (1974), Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems (1984), and Green Notebook, Winter Road. Scaffolding: Selected Poems which, as its title suggests, draws its readers into the very construction (or "composition" as Cooper would say) of its poems, was recently reissued by Tilbury House, publishers of Green Notebook, Winter Road.

Jane Cooper has served as co-editor of several books of poetry, published two chapbooks and has been anthologized in numerous works including Howe and Bass’s No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women. She has been a recipient of numerous honors and awards throughout her career, among them the Shelley Award of the Poetry Society of America (1978), the Maurice English Poetry Award (1985) for Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1995). A resident of Manhattan, Cooper is also well remembered at Sarah Lawrence College where she served on the faculty from 1950 until her retirement in 1987. Cooper retains the title of Professor and Poet-in-Residence Emerita at Sarah Lawrence.

Galway Kinnell finds in Cooper’s poems "a pure formal grace . . . they are not products of labor but of inspiration," and Adrienne Rich has noted in Cooper "a passionate commitment to the imagination, a craft which is both subtle and honorable, a continuing inner growth." Cooper’s voice is a celebration of community and cultures in all their dimensions. Richard Howard numbers Cooper "among the most responsible and inveterately rewarding poets of our moment."

Donald Tapkin is a graduate student in the English Department, University at Albany

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Jane Cooper