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Fall 2002
Volume 7, Number 1

Zoe Caldwell

Zoe Caldwell is a four-time Tony Award winner for her roles in Slapstick Tragedy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Medea, and Master Class. Caldwell debuted at Stratford-upon-Avon and London before her immigration to Canada in 1961. She has been both an actor and a director during her internationally acclaimed career. Caldwell was honored by Queen Elizabeth II with the Order of the British Empire. The Australian-born Ms. Caldwell now makes the United States her home.

Of Zoe Caldwell’s autobiographical book, I Will Be Cleopatra (2001), Arthur Miller says, "Hers is a vision not only for actors to ponder, but anyone longing for greatness in this ancient art." Sub-titled An Actress’s Journey, it begins with Caldwell’s birth and culminates in her portrayal of the legendary Cleopatra some thirty four years later. Interwoven into the narrative are accounts of her travels to other countries ending with her taking up residence in New York.

Beginning with her family life and childhood in Australia, Caldwell weaves an enchanting tale of why she chose acting as a career (she was dyslexic) and her journey through the learning and experiences of her chosen calling. She recalls, with capricious insight, how she discovered the importance of each aspect of her craft. Of voice, Caldwell states,

"I began to understand how important the voice was and how subtle an instrument it was and how essential it was to observe the punctuation, to make the meaning clear. Audiences may not be so bright individually, but when they are together as a collective intelligence, they become very bright and are able to understand anything. The trick is to keep their intelligence engaged. If they know exactly what you’re saying, they will follow you anywhere. Lose them for a minute and they may nod off and you will lose them for the entire time you are together."

There are wonderful anecdotes telling of Caldwell’s researching and taking on the role of Cleopatra. As part of her research she spent time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s massive collection on Egypt. Of taking on a role, Caldwell says, "When you become pregnant you consciously take care of your body for the baby. Taking on a role is very similar … I was making my body fit and my mind relaxed for Cleopatra. When you accept a role, whatever the role, everything is grist for the mill. I had no waking moment without her (Cleopatra)."

The Times Literary Supplement said of I Will Be Cleopatra, "Caldwell’s book has warmth and charm; it is filled with compassion and a genuine liking for the people and milieu of the theater—the stage managers, designers, landladies, the digs—and she offers up deft analyses of plays and performances she has watched from the wings, or from the audience."

The Library Journal noted,

"This highly entertaining autobiography presents the sometimes comical, sometimes touching memoirs of an Australian actress and winner of four Tony Awards, who was also one of the leading classical and Broadway actors of the 20th century. From her earliest memories as a child growing up in Melbourne to the culmination of her Shakespearean career as Cleopatra in 1967, Caldwell draws the reader into her world of the stage. ‘Actors need to observe,’ Caldwell writes, ‘for that is what they draw upon.’ She is unhesitatingly honest in both her praise and her criticism of her own and others’ performances on and off the stage. Caldwell’s witty descriptions and anecdotes of both ordinary people and all the greats with whom she worked from Paul Robeson, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier to Dame Judith Anderson, Dame Edith Evans, and Vivien Leigh give insight into the 20th century’s ‘golden age of theater’ as well as into the actress’s dynamic and candid personality. Highly recommended for all theater and biography collections."

In an anecdote from the book concerning Caldwell and Dame Edith Evans in the play All’s Well, Caldwell says,

"Dame Edith got to the theatre three hours ahead of curtain up but her door was closed so her preparations remained a mystery. However, I did see her stand before each performance at the side of the stage with her hands held above her shoulders, shaking them as in a dance of welcome to the gods. ‘Oh no,’ she laughed, when I told her what I thought she was doing. ‘I am simply draining the blood from my hands to make them as slim and white as possible. You should do it.’"

Florence Hunt is a graduate student in the Humanistic Studies Program.

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Zoe Caldwell

Bernardine Evaristo, Introduction on 10/26/02

It is a great pleasure to introduce Bernardine Evaristo, who seems incapable of writing a work of fiction that does not win a major award. Her first novel, Lara, received the Ethnic Multicultural Media Award for the Best Book of 1999, and her second, The Emperor’s Babe, won an Arts Council of England Writers’ Award in 2000.

While the praise for these works is uniformly high, I should note that critics do not invariably agree as to what it is exactly that they are praising. Evaristo’s novels, written in verse, seem not to fit safely into general critical categories. The Emperor’s Babe, for example, is described as "more a ballad than a novel" by the New York Times reviewer. To another, it is a "popular epic"; to a third, a tragicomedy; and to yet another—strangely it seems to me—a "eulogy." Not only are critics inclined to diverse generic labels but none is likely to cite the same lines in the novel, or even different lines for similar reasons; indeed, there is an astonishing variety in what is likely to appeal to different public readers. Some cite the polyglottic language, composed of varieties of English—American and British, Cockney and Black—as well as Latin, Italian, and Scots. Others gravitate to the contemporary allusions, whether to haute couture (for example, Armani togas and Gucci gowns), or to popular culture (for example, Nu Vox, the latest Latin jazz group, and the Bad Boyz, gladiators modeled on today’s World Wrestling Federation heroes), or place ("the wild sloping grassland of Mayfair" and the "wheatfields of Hyde Park"). I take both the lack of generic agreement and of consensus in quotation as signs that The Emperor’s Babe is doing something quite new. This is not simply a matter of serving up "something for everyone"; rather, the novel creates a genuine synthesis of forms and styles, of voices and languages.

Newness, as well as paradox, is perhaps to be expected from a work that begins with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde: "The only duty we have to history is to rewrite it." And rewrite history Evaristo does, re-imagining the lives of Africans in England during the Roman Empire. The result is less a matter of the empire’s writing back, as, say, in Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea or Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge, than a fascinating juxtaposition of the late Roman Empire with post-empire Britain, a reversal of historical, national, and racial perspective that produces a striking picture of twenty-first century London by creating third-century Londinium.

The novel, as I mentioned, is written in verse, and one of its central themes is in fact poetry. The protagonist Zuleika struggles to create a self by expressing herself. She makes a Wildean gesture in scorning the past—and the future—to explore, as well as to seek fulfillment in, the present. In the poem that she reads during the "Verbosa Orgia" staged in her villa, Zuleika asks: "Am I a slave or a slave-owner? / Am I a Londio or a Nubian? / Will my children be Roman or Nubinettes? / Were my parents vassals or pharoahs?" Evaristo uses her protagonist’s questioning to examine the complex theme of identity as shaped by self and other, by desire and fulfillment or frustration, by loneliness and love. Among my favorite sections of the novel are those addressing the interdependent relation between language and sexuality. There are three separate sections devoted to "The Language of Love," and another, called "Post-coital Colloquium," offers a Kristevan dialogue of intercourse and discourse—a dialectic of emergent identity.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the book, of course, is its vivid vernacular. A dead language is reanimated, sometimes simply by changing word order: Vidi, Vici, Veni, sometimes by juxtaposing Latin and English in readily recognized phrases, such as "pulcherrima babe" and "futuo off." The novel yields a composite language, consisting of the "plebby creole" of the protagonist Zuleika and her friends Alba and Venus, as well as of the patrician phrases (and sentiments) of her husband, a Roman senator and businessman, and her lover, the eponymous emperor. Macaronic neologisms, witty inflections of class, race, and culture, the declensions of geography and gender—all the comedy and wordplay produce a veritable power of Babel. Every page comes alive—and every reader will find his and her favorite lines. This is a language that is to be heard and as well as read, and, therefore, it is with special pleasure and anticipation that I introduce to you, Bernardine Evaristo.

Randall Craig is Professor in the English Department, UAlbany.

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Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo

Contemporary British writing shows diversity and constant evolution. It surprises readers with its energy and variety. Bernardine Evaristo writings are bursting with diversity, energy, and innovation that could be called ground-breaking. London born to a Nigerian father and a British mother, Evaristo’s multi-cultural creativity culminates in innovative and lyrical prose.

Evaristo’s newest novel, The Emperor’s Babe, takes place in 211 A. D. London. It’s the typical story of a poor girl marrying up, but with a twist. The New York Times says, "Bernardine Evaristo has written the novel in springy, street smart verse that swings between sour-apple satire, sweet-corn sentiment and, from time to time, lines of piercing lyricism."

Evaristo sets this novel in Londinium, Britannia, where her protagonist, Zuleika, a daughter of immigrants, is married to an old, rich Roman at the age of eleven. Don’t let the setting fool you. The language runs the gamut from ancient to modern, from Latin to Cockney slang. Zuleika is witty and precocious.

Of her husband, Zuleika says, "I have the deepest fondness for my husband, of course, sort of, though he spills over me like dough and I’m tempted to call Cook mid-coitus to come trim his sides so that he fits me. Then it’s puff and Ciao, baby!" Of her lover, the Emperor Septimus Severus, Zuleika says, "You come, you go, some nights you stay to shoot pearl drops in my navel and marvel at childless skin. I emerge from clouds, sticky with fallen issue, to mute spear-carrying guards, and a house full of hushed slaves. Vale, Zuleika. You stride away, a palm-less wave, and I know that to ask for more is to lose you."

The Emperor, Severus, has a courtesan, Camilla. Intentional, or not, what Evaristo has to say about her could be fairly recent tabloid fodder. "Camilla, an aristocrat of thoroughbred pedigree from Lower Britannia, renowned as his official camp-bed follower, was now persona non grata. Alas, she had passed her sell by date. Poor old Camilla, wandering minstrels roamed village and town singing cheap and completely gratuitous ditties to news-starved plebes about how Camilla was really Helen of Troy … She rather resembled the Horse of Troy … everyone knows she’d retired to her country estate where she supervised the growth of parsnips, trained horses for the equestrian games, and roamed incognito in the woods, side saddle on a pony."

Evaristo’s prior novel, Lara, was published in 1997 to critical acclaim. It is the story of a multi-cultural girl who grows up in suburban London during the 60s and 70s. It received high praise from many newspapers and literary journals. Lara, was a Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, and Journal ‘Book of the Year.’ It also won the EMMA Best Novel Award in 1999 and the Arts Council Writers Award in 2000 The Daily Telegraph writes, "Lara is a short, lyrical, vividly real novel in verse, dipping 150 years into the past to explore the family history of a Nigerian father and an English mother. It’s funny, touching, informative, passionate, and very easy to read. If you’re tired of novels that seem all the same, this one’s a complete original." World Literature Today writes, "Lara makes the case that there is a compelling, energizing genre of British writing which offers rich potential for moving and evocative literature … In Evaristo we are witnessing a fresh voice of daring … a narrative rich in vivid descriptions of place and time, but equally compelling is her ability to capture the nuances of language in the dialogue of her characters … What Evaristo manages to do is expand the meaning of being African and being a woman living in the trans-cultural world of the twenty-first century Europe … A wonderful story, well told."

. Evaristo’s writing has also been published in newspapers and magazines. She has toured extensively and has performed many readings of her work. Her writing residencies have included the Poetry Society At the Museum of London, Binghamton University in New York, the British Council in Zimbabwe, and the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.

Florence Hunt is a graduate student in the Humanistic Studies Program.

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Bernardine Evaristo

Richard Ford
BookShow transcript, February 9, 1989

Smith: Welcome to the Public Radio Book Show. I’m your host, Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute. Our guest today is author Richard Ford who has emerged as a major American fiction writer of the 1980’s. Especially celebrated are his 1986 novel, The Sportswriter and his 1988 collection of stories, Rock Springs, which has been rightly hailed as a true and original masterpiece of contemporary storytelling. Richard, it’s always great to talk to you. Welcome to the Public Radio Book Show.

Ford: Well I’m glad to be here, I’m sorry that the eighties are sending that kind of introduction.

Smith: (Laughs) Listen, Richard, you grew up in Mississippi which is the location of your earlier fiction, your first novel, but you now live in Montana and it seems to me the West which is the scene of that remarkable collection, Rock Springs, it’s like you found your true home. I mean not only physically but also spiritually and particularly fictionally, is this true?

Ford: Well, I think I certainly found my home, it’s on the landscape. I like it there and would be happy if I could live there a long time. In regard to the work, I think in some ways I just got lucky. I mean every writer has to get lucky. Every writer has to find a place for which he has a natural language and I just got lucky that way in Montana. I came upon a place that unlike the South, which is so storied, didn’t have as much writing about it. I mean, not to say that Wallace Stegner hasn’t written about it, and a lot of other people, but for me, they were just places that I could go and to kind of write about but which there was no literature, at least not one that I knew. People I’m sure have written about it but for me it was new. For me it didn’t have language attached to it.

Smith: Well I must hasten to add, that The Sportswriter takes place for the most part in suburban New Jersey and you render that landscape meaningful and vivid the way you do Great Falls and Wyoming and Montana and the way you did the South. But what I’m asking, is the landscape—the physical and social landscape of the West. Does the West hold some kind of revelation of the American psyche today? Some kind of physical vision of our inner life? Certainly you get that feeling in your stories. Do you have that sense of it? Because I do when I read "Rock Springs" and "Great Falls" and all these other stories in that volume.

Ford: Well, I inherited a tradition of writing in the way that I do that comes from Chekhov and Sherwood Anderson and Frank O’Connor, in which one does set out to write about the inner lives of characters. Whether it’s appropriate or unique to that landscape, I don’t know. I know the names of places mean a lot to me and I know that the way in which I sit down and write after I’ve been to those places means a lot to me. But I don’t think, on the other hand, that those stories stand in as a kind of a bedecker for Montana. I think that I just happened to have latched onto a language and live in a certain place, which almost by good fortune has made me able to write stories. I’m trying to make it clear to you, as gratuitous as I think it is. I know people have said to me, or have said in my hearing, that I shouldn’t be writing about Montana because I have not lived there all my life. What I try to say to them after I’ve basically told them to go to hell is that it’s just luck for me. If I had been living in Nevada, for instance, or if I had been living in south Texas, I would hope that I would’ve written the stories that I wrote and set them there. I just don’t feel like I know so much about Montana, I just think that I’ve been fortunate enough to try to imagine the place.

Smith: Well, the setting of the American West for your stories that I’m talking about is that sense of stark and lyric emptiness, certainly it’s lyric in your language. The stark and lyric emptiness of life amidst junk culture. On the one hand, these spectacular mountains and prairies and all of that and then on the other hand the shopping centers and army bases. And that seems to be to the reader a very fascinating setting for the discontinuity of relationships, the fractured families, the sudden eruptions of violence in ordinary daily life. That’s what I meant. The landscape of the West seems to tell us something about our inner life. It certainly does in your stories and I wondered if you felt that way, too.

Ford: Well it does. Cultural civilized phenomena are in fact discontinuous—army bases and discontinuous family relationships. If those things really do exist out there against such beautiful landscapes, then language, I guess, is the medium which tries to join them, which tries to make a sentence in which you can have all of those things coexisting. Language is in that way a kind of connector and I think given, as you said, the discontinuous nature of civilized life out there, it’s looking for something which can accommodate. It’s looking for some kind of a mediative gesture by some of its citizens and literature is just one of them.

Smith: Yes. I’m talking with author Richard Ford about his fiction. My name is Tom Smith and this is the Public Radio Book Show. Richard, your stories give us this sense of quiet desperation. I’m, of course, referring to Thoreau’s famous line back in Walden, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." How do the stories start? Do they start with a character, a situation, or a line or a sound? I’m not talking necessarily about simply the stories in Rock Springs.

Ford: Well, let me raise your Thoreau to a Sartre who says to view dark situations, is itself optimistic because it implies that those situations can be thought about. So I really think that the stories, even though they may be about desperation, are not themselves desperate but are in fact, as I said before, mediative. They are optimistic in so far as that they can generate language. What we can say about things means that we can understand them and in some ways that’s a gesture of optimism. Where those stories start, really, is in details. Rather than wholly realized stories, I just start with the stuff that I collect in my notebook. I just write it down on pieces of paper and look at it until I feel like I have a first line, which seems to promise a second line, which seems to promise a third line, and I’m always looking in those situations for drama. I’m always looking for the way in which those phenomena that you talked about before create a sense of drama. A life in which a family is not staying homogeneous. A situation in which a man doesn’t have a job. Various kinds of satisfactions and dissatisfactions put into the same sentences. So I really start from almost the most basic stuff of life and from the language that that stuff generates and try to write sentences. I almost think about writing stories in terms of writing lines. That’s not to compare myself happily to poets but in another way I think that poets write poems that way and that’s the way I write stories—line by line by line rather than concocting a scheme and then filling it in.

Smith: One of the things that’s memorable about your style is that sense of absolutely appropriate authenticity to the character and the situation, along with a very dramatic and lyric beginning usually from the first sentence. Someone said that your stories are in the classic tradition of the story as a one-act play. When you mentioned Chekhov, I immediately had that recognition. Richard, let me read a couple sentences from the end of Rock Springs, or actually the second story of Rock Springs, "Great Falls." Incidentally, let me just say to our listeners that all of Richard Ford’s fiction, the three novels and the volume of short stories, Rock Springs, is available in Vintage Contemporaries paperback series, which you can find all over the country in bookstores. I just want to read something toward the end of "Great Falls" and I don’t think people who haven’t read the story need to know the whole plot of the story but the narrative says,

"But I have never known the answer to these questions, have never asked anyone their answers. Though possibly it—the answer—is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire."

Ford: I think that’s a bleak little ending, isn’t it? (Laughs)

Smith: I was going to say it’s beautiful but it’s very bleak.

Ford: That’s the bleakest story I ever wrote.

Smith: Incidentally, forgive me because I’m used to hearing that story with your accent rather than my northeastern accent.

Ford: Well I’m glad to hear that it can be read by somebody else. Sometimes you begin to think that your stories only have whatever affect they’re going to have due to the agency of your own voice and at least those sentences sound like sentences to me.

Smith: Good! (Laughs) They sound like a lot more than that to me. But that passage, which I don’t mean to take out of context as a singular example, but it seems like a motto, maybe an epiphany for your whole work, especially in Rock Springs and I just wondered about that vision. I’m not saying that your own worldview has to be quite that bleak but it does seem like it could be an epigraph of the whole volume.

Ford: Well I hope it’s not because as I said I think that’s the bleakest story I ever wrote. Again I repair to that line of Sartre’s that if you can say a thing, if you can even accuse your parents in that instance of being what that speaker does accuse his parents of at a time later on in his life—looking back on an earlier time in his life—the nature of the accusations, if it’s believed, is optimistic because whoever is speaking it has lived beyond it and can say that with a certain amount of affection about his parents. I know that in those lines that you read there is not that element of affection that is completely palpable. But I think that in the stories in Rock Springs, apart from "Great Falls," there is a good deal more of human optimism. By human optimism I don’t mean clowns walking down the street in parades, I mean just a kind of optimism that we all have to have to live from day to day.

Smith: I also think we should say that some of the stories, I’m thinking particularly of "Going to the Dogs," are very funny stories. They not only demonstrate survival but also some of the zany irony of life that makes us able to survive.

Ford: I know Rock Springs is thought of as being a collection of stories which is set in the West. I wrote Going to the Dogs in a little house, well more like a big house, that I rented Pownal, Vermont, and when I finally got around to finishing the story and putting in the collection I think I took out a couple of references in that story which localized it to the Northeast and hoped that with simple proximity it would seem like a western story. In some ways I’m satisfied that it does. Basically, even though those stories mostly are set in the West, I would like them to just be American stories.

Smith: Well they are. I mean as I said, the much celebrated novel published previous to Rock Springs, The Sportswriter, takes place in suburban New Jersey for the most part and that seems altogether fitting there. Incidentally, I just wanted to add one thing for the benefit of listeners, "Going to the Dogs" . . . talk about reversal. The two hunters are two obese female hunters who come to the narrator’s door, seduce him, (Laughs) and abandon him after robbing him. That shows a great variety of sounds and sights in Rock Springs. Richard, in that collection, no matter how alienated your characters are the reader has the feeling that like Joseph Conrad said about Lord Jim, "they are one of us." In fact, toward the end of "Rock Springs," the title story, the narrator Earl, who has been left by his lover on their way to Tampa/St. Pete is looking in a parking lot and casing a car that he will steal for the rest of the trip and he says something like this,

"And I wondered, because it seemed funny, what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?"

And that line there, "anybody like you" seems to resonate in our memory after we finish this volume and I think maybe that’s one of your major intentions.

Ford: Well it is, in fact. I don’t have to but if I were to have to find a line that was in a way able to speak the intentions of those stories it’s that line as much as any other because I don’t think of people in terms of being alienated. Alienation is just a conventional notion to describe a whole lot of human situations, which have been literature’s obligation and joy to try to particularize. I am just always interested in the way in which people accommodate themselves to their situations and sometimes their situations are not such happy ones from day to day and the stories always are a way to pronounce that accommodation. We accommodate more or less successfully all our lives. At that point when the guy is on the run and has only his daughter to take care of and to have affection for, I think that’s a lot. I think it’s a lot to be able to wake up every morning to have your daughter, someone you love and who will say she loves you even if all other prospects are low.

Smith: Bill Kennedy in Ironweed says, and this is in reference to Francis Phelan, "the major thing in life is trying to get through the next twenty minutes." I think more of us really feel that even though we are planning endlessly for the future and mortgages and insurance and all this. It’s somehow the daily resilience that really is what we are going to stand or fall on.

Ford: Since you quoted Lord Jim, I remember when I read it the first time, it has always seemed to me one of the bleakest, most forbidding books I’ve ever read in my life. And yet when I do go back and read it, which has to say something about it, I feel there is a kind of a wish whereby Marlow who speaks that book, goes far out of his way in telling that story to make the story seem intelligible. To make the story seem utterable. For me, that’s a huge source of hope.

Smith: Well said. This is Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute and I’m talking with author Richard Ford on the Public Radio Book Show about his fiction. Richard, your 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, is not really about sports. I mean it is and it isn’t. Why does your haunted and dreamy protagonist Frank Bascombe turn from writing fiction to sports writing?

Ford: Well I think he thought, and I want to make clear that I distinguish myself from him, I think he thought that being a writer was very hard and I think he thought that it was a high calling which he had given his best to and finally just sort of didn’t succeed at it. So that’s one thing. He turns away from literature because he didn’t succeed in a way he hoped he would or in a way he thought he might. The other thing is that I’ve always been interested in the way in which conventional wisdom says that one must always go up, go up, go up and everybody has to get higher on some ladder or other and everybody has to succeed in greater and greater ways. It never seemed to me to be incumbent on humanity that he or she has to go in that way. In conventional terms maybe you can actually make yourself a lot happier by not going up on somebody else’s ladder. It seemed to me to be dramatic to have a man simply step down from a high calling to one that might conventionally be seen as lower in behalf of making himself happier.

Smith: Is there some particular significance about, not that it is not an art, but the activity of the sports writer himself or itself that says something about the culture once again? Are we, like Frank Bascombe, aspiring passive spectators in what might be a kind of childlike entertainment or sport? Is there something about the whole viewing of sports itself that is a manifestation of a kind of passivity and a kind of unwillingness for commitment or for passion?

Ford: Well that’s a many-sided question to me, having written a book all about that. I think one thing is that I hope and it was my intention that sports not be emblematic in the book, at least not in the most frontal ways. Second, my thought was that men and women would choose to be sports writers because to my experience and from the experience of a lot of people in the country, writing sports seemed like such a wonderful thing to get to do. It seemed like a privilege to get to do it and it seemed like it wasn’t terribly hard. It seemed like you would spend a lot of your time doing things that women and men like doing: being outdoors, seeing ball games, that kind of thing. It just seemed to be pleasant. As far as passivity is concerned, that’s kind of a loaded question for me because Frank does tell the story himself. And insofar as he is the speaker of that story, he is then not passive. He may be telling you about things that he does which are themselves seemingly passive, but he’s telling it. As he’s telling it, he’s active in life.

Smith: The voice, the persona of Frank Bascombe, himself, like the persona of some of the narrators in Rock Springs, seem to some readers like a new kind of male persona in American fiction, a post-feminist persona if you will, where there is none of the macho posturing or self involvement that we identify rightly or wrongly with male narrators in earlier generations of American fiction. I think that is remarkable about it. On the one hand, Frank is closed up and is uncommitted. On the other hand he’s very tender and he reveals his feelings and he doesn’t posture or exploit the women around him, especially Vicki, his current mistress.

Ford: Although I’ve had people tell me he does. I, of course, believe he doesn’t and I would even argue fairly vigorously against the notion that you can typify fiction written by men in the last X number of years—in the last fifty years—as being fiction about women exclusively that is to say about women being treated badly. As you say, I don’t think Frank does that himself, but I think again that part of the book is not so extraordinary. It may just have come along at a moment when people in this country were ready to believe that was possible.

Smith: In other words, we were looking for a post-feminist, male persona now?

Ford: Yes, we had a category all filed out and hallow. Maybe that book just fit into it, where other books perhaps might have fitted into that little cavity prior. Mostly when men get accused of doing bad things, particularly subliminally bad things to other people—women and men—I am always tempted to take a closer look and see if that’s true. It’s a lot easier to accuse people of doing something bad than it is to prove it.

Smith: That’s true, that’s absolutely true. One other thing about The Sportswriter, is the time frame of the novel—the significance of Easter weekend. It begins at the cemetery of the memorial service for the dead son of Frank Bascombe and his ex-wife (who is always referred to as "ex" throughout the book) who died two years earlier. The child has died of Reye’s Syndrome. The novel begins on Good Friday and goes over, like The Divine Comedy, Easter weekend. Is there any significance to that?

Ford: It is significant because I started the book on Easter day in 1982 and I started it that day because that was the first day that I ever really felt like getting back to work. It was not long after my mother died and I had just been kind of in a funk and suddenly a day dawned on Easter morning and I thought well maybe it’s time to sit down and try something. That, to be perfectly honest from the genesis of that book, is the only significance that it had. When I was halfway along with the book I realized that I was dealing with certain kinds of [inaudible] of life and regenerative myth and I was actually somewhat shame-faced about it because I’m not very comfortable with those kinds of talismanic meanings, but I had to deal with it. What I found was that when I started recognizing it I had to really hold back this rush of Christian symbolism. When I finished the book I had to go back through and take out a bunch of stuff because it was never my intention.

Smith: Because it would seem too tendentious. It would seem too much as if you were trying to make it an allegory.

Ford: Yes, and I just wasn’t up to that, both intellectually nor just in terms of what my intentions were. I just wanted to tell a story that had a fairly concise time scheme. Also I wanted to tell a story which had a period that a reader probably had some familiarity with. Everybody, in this country anyway, has a sort of fix on what Easter weekend is like. We have memories of it, we have associations, we know what days look like, we know how we feel on Maundy Thursday, we know how we feel on Good Friday, we know how we feel on Easter and I wanted in some way to take advantage of that a little bit apart from its Judeo-Christian symbology. I’m not much of a symbologizer.

Smith: The muted, numb suffering of Frank Bascombe seems to be in some kind of ironic contrast to the passion play of the Crucifixion and resurrection and yet at some point it seems appropriate.

Ford: Yes, but not for the author, I would have to say.

Smith: OK. (Laughs) Not for the author. Incidentally I am talking with the author of The Sportswriter and Rock Springs and other fiction, Richard Ford, and this is Tom Smith on Public Radio Book Show.

Ford: I should say one thing about that, Tom. You write a book and you do your best and you make it be as complete as you can make it be and then it goes into the world and people make a use of it that they need. So really, I don’t want to play ignorant about what the book can be made to mean, but that’s just one of the things you have to do. You have to part with a book. You have to say well, all right, I’ve done this much to it, whatever use you want to make of it, you make of it. And I don’t war with that. I don’t want to seem like Faulkner used to seem, which was to sort of toe the dirt and say well isn’t it funny what you make out of this book. My intentions are my intentions and then the readers come along, I hope, and exercise their own intentions.

Smith: Yes, they become collaborators after the fact really, in some ways.

Ford: Well I have to authorize the book completely and then they just share in my authorization or substitute their own.

Smith: Richard, your narrative voice in these works is original and singular but many readers are reminded of your friend, the late Raymond Carver. I know I have some sense of what he meant to you as a very dear friend. What did he mean to you as a writer? We don’t have very much time left and it’s an enormous question.

Ford: The thing he meant most to me as a writer was that he was as a friend a man who gave everything that he had to his work. He worked without excuses, he worked as though his art was the most important thing in the world to him, and it was. Among the many things he might have taught me, he taught me most acutely that that was the most important thing in the world. He was a little older than I was but we were still close enough in age—about five or six years difference—that we could be friends. I could see from him, when I first met him, that here was a guy who was doing what I would like to do. Here was a guy working without nets, without excuses who did his very best every time.

Smith: He did it magnificently and you are doing it magnificently and that’s where we must end it. Thank you Richard Ford. Please finish your novel and please return to the Writers Institute for another one of your magical readings.

Ford: It would be my pleasure Tom. Thanks a lot.

Smith: This is Tom Smith saying so long until the next Public Radio Book Show.

Transcribed by Laura Solomon, Student Intern, NYS Writers Institute.

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Richard Ford

Richard Ford
Reading transcript, February 11, 1988

Tom Smith: Good evening and welcome to, pardon the expression, the Spring Program of The Writers Institute. I just want to make a few announcements before I turn the evening over to Gary McLouth. (Announcements made) Right now I’d like to introduce a good friend of ours, if you remember, in December he introduced Richard Ford’s good friends, Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher. Gary McLouth also wrote the little piece on Richard Ford for our newsletter that just came out. He is a writer with so many credits I hardly know where to begin. He co-authored a very important book a couple years ago called Men and Abortion. He’s written stories, essays, poems, and has published a lot of places. He taught here in the English department at the University at Albany. Among many other things, he is currently the managing editor of the magazine, Ground Swell. He is going to get married this summer and he just bought a house today. Will you welcome Gary McLouth.

McLouth: In two words that means I’m in shock, or is that three words? It is a great pleasure to have been able to spend the afternoon with Richard Ford and Chris Shaw. We had a great time and I have a million things I’d love to say about Richard Ford and I’d like to read a couple of his stories but I think it would be a good idea to let him do that.

Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi and has been in love with his wife for 20 years and that’s got to be the ‘ultimate good luck’. He lives in Montana in the delta northwestern Mississippi. He has taught at Princeton, Williams, and Michigan. He is one of those writers who has tried a few other serious careers before he decided to write: one was business management and hotel management and the other was law school which he got part way through before he decided to become a writer and it’s worked out pretty well for him. Time magazine has rated Ford’s third novel, The Sportswriter, and probably his best known novel, "as one of the five best novels of 1986." The New York Times reviewed it and said that, "Ford was one of the most compelling and eloquent story tellers of his generation."

His first novel, A Piece of My Heart, which was published in 1976 won the Great Lakes College Association best first novel award. His second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, was published in 1981 and the reward for the book is yours when you read it. His most recent book, Rock Springs, is a collection of ten stories previously published in such magazine as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. His stories have appeared in 20 anthologies, at least, and have won many literary prizes. He has also written a play called American Tropical that was produced by the Actors Theater of Louisville in 1983. He has written essays on a range of topics including Bruce Springsteen, his mother, Walker Percy, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles that have appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Granta and The National Review. The piece on his mother is incredible and it’s recent, it’s in a Harper’s issue in the last year and is really worth reading.

He has won the PEN/Faulkner citation for fiction from the Mississippi Academy of Arts and Letters awards for literature last year. His stories were selected for the best American Short Stories prize story and the Pushcart prize story in 1986. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Ford handles scenes of love and violence with sensual dexterity, the intelligence of a hunted fox and fresh blood. Ford’s work is full of particulars and images. There is an openness to the craft akin to the high plains. There is vast geography and far away sounds coming close. You don’t find cleverness, you don’t find preening. The writing is as unself-conscious as the characters themselves and things seem to fit with a timeless androgeny of fated genes. His stories exude a poignant fatalism. Each tale gnaws at you with a tarnished elegance of a one-night stand.

One of the stories he is going to read tonight is my favorite so I’m not going to touch that but there is a story that I just want to read a couple of lines from. It’s a story about a couple that’s going cross-country in a train to visit the woman’s sister who has just gone slightly crazy or maybe a little more than slightly. The wife goes to bed and the husband stays up and he meets a very buxom U.S. Army sergeant and they go off and have a fast affair in her berth and then he comes back to his wife. In the meantime, there is this incredible prairie fire going on outside. The train is stopped, the world is stopped, everything is on fire. He walks into his wife’s berth and she’s looking out the window and she says, "The world’s on fire, Vic, but it doesn’t hurt anything. It just burns until it stops." I think that is a good way to introduce Mr. Ford. I hope he burns for a long time on his work. Thank You.

Ford: Well you are all very nice and you’ve risked your lives against the snow. These stories are mostly set in Montana where I live. I was reading a biography of Sherwood Anderson recently by a man named Townsend and he said that one of the nicest things about Sherwood Anderson was that while he could write so well about Ohio, he didn’t remember anything about it at all. In a way, that is why it’s possible to write about Montana because I’m from Mississippi and I have to make up the parts that I don’t know, which is a lot. That really is the storywriter’s privilege and it’s his obligation. The reason I even bring that up is that the story I am about to read you is called Great Falls and Great Falls is actually a town in Montana along the Missouri River right up against the eastern front of the Rockies. There are a lot of people in bars in Missoula who have read that story and said, "Well, hell, he doesn’t live there; he has no right to write about that. How dare he write a story called Great Falls." For me, it is just a way of saying ‘here is a story called Great Falls’; it doesn’t stand in the place of the town itself. This town, itself, doesn’t need a story. If you want to go find it on the map you can. If you can find it on the landscape you can. This is another matter.

Ford reads Great Falls: "This is not a happy story. I warn you.

My father was a man named Jack Russell, and when I was a young boy in my early teens, we lived with my mother in a house to the east of Great Falls, Montana, near the small town of Highwood and the Highwood Mountains and the Missouri River…..But I have never known the answer to these questions, have never asked anyone their answers. Though possibly it—the answer—is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire." Thank you. (Applause)

This is where we would be glad to entertain questions and discussion.

Ford: Indeed if there are any. I guess you’re supposed to read the story and shut everybody up; sometimes that doesn’t work.

(Inaudible question asked)

Ford: OK that’s a complicated one. The nicest thing anybody ever said to me about these stories, which are mostly all set in Montana, was to ask if I was born in Montana, which I wasn’t. I was born in Mississippi and really lived in Mississippi quite a long time. The actual origins of that story, as well as I can remember them, is because they start off with a bunch of discrete facts and then they conglomerate together and become something entirely distinct from their raw origins. For a long time in my young life—and from everybody’s life, from the time you’re 16 to the time you’re 21 seems like a long time—I worked on the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. I was a fireman until all the firemen got laid off for featherbedding and then they made us all switchmen. I never had an occasion in the 20 years I had been writing stories to write anything about railroads and that was really one thing, in a way, that made Great Falls become an interesting town to me because Great Falls was a town where the Great Northern Railroad came down. Somehow or other where I had worked on the railroad—which was in Little Rock, Memphis, El Dorada, and Texicana—those places just seemed kind of inert to me. But when I found Great Falls and I saw those railroad yards, somehow that place had some sort of tingle to me. It’s what Richard Hugo calls a ‘triggering town’. Great Falls was for me a ‘triggering town’; it’s an interesting town for a lot of reasons. One of which is that the Missouri River really encounters its first considerable falls there and when Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri they finally had to call it quits there because they couldn’t get up over those falls in 1804. It is also right at the edge of the eastern front of the Rockies, and for me, that landscape is just a landscape of drama; it is just a place where things happen. If you have a tennis match in Great Falls it has a really odd resonance. So I thought to myself here is a place to set anything.

The other was that I had been reading a book called Outlawed Gunners. Because I’m a hunter, a guy gave me a book down in Mississippi about these fellows who go out onto the eastern shore of Maryland and market hunt. They creep up on these big rafts of ducks in little punt boats and they have enormous guns. They shoot right on the level of the water and they can kill hundreds of ducks at a time. They used to do this in the ‘20s and the ‘30s. To some extent they don’t do it anymore because the game laws are so rigid and inspection is so tight. I thought to myself, what an interesting piece of business that is in a way. And I thought to myself, I wonder if anybody ever did that in Montana and I thought, ‘yes they did’. (Laughs) I set that in motion in the story and I came to a line in the story in which I wanted the boy to say something about his father, which was in a way a line of quiddity. It was a line that said my father is this kind of man. When you think about a man who goes out and catches a hundred fish in a day and goes out and kills 30 or 40 ducks and sells them, he was a man who did not know limits. Once I just lucked out and had that line, then everything else that he did fell within the perimeters of that line. So that at the end of that story when the mother says to the son that your father won’t let me come back, that in essence is that line revivified; a man who loves his wife but who won’t let her come back because she has done something to make him unhappy is a man who does not know limits. You may disagree with that but my business as a writer is to order the world in a way to give you a chance to disagree with that or agree with it. I wanted to define, in a sense, when I got to the end of the story, what it meant to be a man who did not know limits. Beyond that, I know that area around Great Falls very well just from having been out there hunting birds for a few years. It seems to me that the way in which human beings accommodate themselves to a landscape is intrinsically dramatic. What we do when we come to a place and acclimate ourselves and accommodate ourselves is an act of drama. We do this against those things, which we do not know. If you have enough stuff in the environment, which are things that are dramatic, whatever you do partakes a lot of that drama. If you have a nice town like Albany to set a story in you don’t have to be a genius do you really? (Laughs) But really, Albany is a place that you perceive as a town of drama and when you set up something in Albany which you know very well, by God, it’s got drama in it. So that gives you a huge license. When you feel that drama in the place where you are, then what you put on that landscape is dramatic.

Question: The introducer mentioned that you have been in love with your wife for 20 years and yet some of your characters have failed marriages. Where do you get the material to write from that perspective?

Ford: I think the question is: How is it that a man who has been married for 20 years to the same woman and who loves her, writes about marriages that don’t work out? I think probably that it is that if you’ve been married for that long—not that that’s so long, lots of people have been married a lot longer than that—the thing that terrifies you the most in that world is that you’ll lose that. It’s very vivid to you. You realize, for one thing, that whatever kind of person you are, good or bad, you could never be without the presence of the other person and to lose that other person through infidelity, through a catastrophic event, through the casual disappearance when you watch somebody walk around the block and never see them again is the stuff of drama. It’s like kids. There is a line in that story where he (the father) says what do you worry about and the little boy, who he thinks has a nice homogeneous family, says that he worries that his parents will die before he does. All kids must dream that ugly dream at one time or another. Both my parents did die before I did, before I will. (Laughs) So really I think it is a scary story in essence to me. It is really in one way this very principal conceit of all fiction. It’s the ‘what if’ of that. So when somebody says to you, write about what you know, please include in what you know all the things that you think you know, all the things you’re afraid of, all the things that haven’t happened to you but might, or that in some way preoccupy you. Actually, in another way, in The Sportswriter, I always thought that it’s a book about a man trying to make himself happy. In one of the lines in The Sportswriter, Frank says that he loves his wife in all ways except the most specific one. The most specific one is the marital one because that’s the one thing he doesn’t have. So in a way his rapport with her is more happy than unhappy. I think it is a republican world which says that if you are happy you laugh and if you are not happy you cry. The real world is another world in which if you are happy you act a lot of ways and if you are not happy you act a lot of ways.

Question: Your stories remind me a bit of Sherwood Anderson’s work. Is he an inspiration for your writing?

Ford: I am certainly not unhappy that something in my stories reminds you of his stories (Sherwood Anderson) because I was a great admirer of his. Stories like Death in the Woods and I Want to Know Why, in particular, were just stories that had a huge effect on me when I was a kid. What the principle effect was I think, lay really in the narrative structure that we talked about today, in which a voice tells an event that happened in the past, like in Death in the Woods. In Death in the Woods a man tells about a time when he was a boy and in the story he tells there is another story: it is about a woman who freezes to death at night and the little boy goes with a bunch of men and finds her and it’s a dreadful event in his life but it’s also oddly sensual and it’s sexual and it’s revelatory to him. The narrative setup is that he tells it from a time far beyond that time and to me what that means is that there is the possibility of consolation; that in the telling of that story there is an attempt to console himself. There is an attempt to console the reader that somehow lies within the discrepancy between the fictive now and the fictive then. And I like that. Stories, as I’ve come to know them better in my life and try to write them, make me want to write stories that have some possibility of consolation without lying or construing the world as I do not believe it to be. So in that way Sherwood Anderson has meant a lot to me. And obviously, I guess, the stratum of life that Sherwood Anderson was interested in, in his best work, just happens to be the stratum of life that I am interested in. It should be said as well that I don’t think that it is necessarily a stratum of life that I occupy. Fiction and art in general is a generous gesture to the world and that gesture can extend to all kinds of strata of life that you, yourself, may not know. It seems to me that one of the worst things at least that an artist can do is to condescend to the people on the subjects that they choose to write about. That is something that Sherwood Anderson never did. He is a great American genius whose light does not burn brightly enough partly because lights like Hemingway burn more brightly, unfairly I think.

You have been very kind to come. It’s been my pleasure to get to talk to you. Thanks.


Transcribed by Laura Solomon, Student Intern, NYS Writers Institute.

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Richard Ford

Jim Harrison
BookShow transcript, July 12, 1994

Welcome to The Book Show produced in cooperation with the Writers Institute at the State University of New York. Your host is Tom Smith.

Smith: Welcome to The Book Show. I’m your host, Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute which is located at the University at Albany and is a part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is one of our culture’s most versatile and vital writers, the literary jack-of-all trades, Jim Harrison. Jim Harrison is the author of eight books of poetry, numerous screenplays, and a collection of non-fiction entitled Just Before Dark. But Harrison is perhaps best known for his much acclaimed fiction. His six novels include Wolf, Farmer, Sundog, and Dalva. He is the author of three collections of novellas: Legends of the Fall, the film version of which will be released later in 1994. The second collection is titled The Woman Lit by Fireflies and now his new book, Julip. The three novellas were published recently by Houghton Mifflin, Seymour Lawrence. Jim Harrison, welcome to The Book Show and congratulations.

Harrison: Well thank you.

Smith: Julip, which is a comic and compellic work of fiction and also for the film Wolf, which I saw the other night, for which you wrote the screen play and I believe also were associate producer. In case anybody has not been reading the papers or going to the movies, Wolf is directed by Mike Nickols and stars Jack Nicholson. Jim, let me ask you straight away before we get into Julip and fiction, what connection, if any, does the movie Wolf have with your first novel, Wolf, which was published back in about 1971? Now I think the full title was Wolf: A False Memoir.

Harrison: Well, the only real association in my mind was that it’s essentially the same kind of character thirty years later. A deeply idealistic person who’s ended up in publishing and is consequently, as my original character has been, deeply crushed by civilization as we know it now. That would be more of a similarity in terms of emotional resonance. Wolf, the novel, was basically everybody’s first autobiographical novel which I wrote quite by accident because I had hurt my back and the novelist Tom McGuane who was a close friend, suggested since I can’t move why not write a novel.

Smith: Yes, I recall Wolf, the novel, is kind of an angry and personal book, whether it’s a memoir or false memoir or novel.

Harrison: I put "False Memoir" in there to trick my mom. (Laughs)

Smith: (Laughs) Very good. Very strategic.

Harrison: One has to deal with these people.

Smith: We will get to the screenplay a little later but let me ask you now about Julip. In the book, is there a thematic development that we use through the three novellas either when you were writing them separately or the way you organized them. I mean the three main characters are very different from each other- they take place in different parts of the country. Is there some kind of common theme that really yokes them together. I thought there was but I might have been wrong.

Harrison: I think the drama in fiction comes basically from people who are very much at odds with the reality that they find themselves in because it seems to be more and more as I grow older a consensual thing, reality in itself. I thought of them because I am a vaguely scholarly person, so I thought of them as sort of low, middle, and high. The further adventures of Brown Dog being the low comic version and Julip being somewhat melodramatic and then The Beige Dolorosa raising the pitch quite a bit.

Smith: They obviously, all three of those main characters, are seeking some kind of freedom; freedom which is very precious and very illusive in the culture in which they move respectively and there are wonderful moments of enlightenment. I must say it’s a fantastically entertaining book, a lot of comedy but there is a great deal of scintillating moments of enlightenment that come to all three characters, either in their own voice or through the narrative voice. Let’s talk about the title story, Julip. The main character is not a man, young or old, but a twenty-one year old woman, a dog trainer whose brother, Bobby, has shot her three middle-aged lovers because they have violated his little sister. Bobby is now in prison in Florida. Julip is trying to get Bobby to admit to insanity so he can get out of prison and she has to get the written consent of the three victims, her three middle-aged, married lovers, her "boys" as they’re called. That’s the essential plot but is the story really about male illusions? One of the stunning passages, there is one on page 59 of Julip. This is in connection with the three boys, the three middle-aged lovers and Ted is one of them. Let me just quote here: "They all know we’re (Beep) said a writer friend of Ted…You could have had at 19, but didn’t." Then the passage goes on quite marvelously and says a little later on, "They all knew in a traditional culture they would be busy by now learning how to be elders, but this was America and you weren’t supposed to stop the generalized churning until you announced retirement or more simply, the lights were turned out." Terrific passage, but is that really what it’s about more than anything else: male illusions?

Harrison: No, I think not so much to me because our illnesses are considerably more common and less interesting than our cares, but because the studied banality of the "boys" as she refers to them is a traumatic experience of every successful man; pursuing younger women. The French at least have their "twice seven plus three rule"- seventeen years being the maximum stretch in hope for a relationship. I was interested in the young woman; how just the act of curiosity and vitality can allow anyone to emerge or draw oneself out of this kind of truly doggish tenacity about everything. But the male illusions that we’ve had, we have every time we open one of those relentless novels about a nifty guy. "Loose ends", I refer to that genre. So I am not dealing so much with that as her particular, what the Japanese call "kinsho", enlightenment as being able to free herself of these lovers.

Smith: There’s a wonderful final vision, this is about two pages from the end: Julip’s final image of her three "boys" as she is about to leave to go back north and she noticed before leaving: "She glanced at each of them and for the briefest, chilling moment they looked like petrified babies suspended in dreamless sleep."

Harrison: Yeah, (Laughs) that’s a tough one.

Smith: "It certainly was a struggle to have fun, she thought, walking out into the night. A dank and rotting blossom the low tides sent sweeping lazily over the city." I love that passage. One of the sources of great comedy in the story is Julip and her cousin Marsha. Their dialogue on men and life, particularly on men is both comic and if you are a man, wonderfully cathartic. On the other hand, Julip, with all her power, to manipulate men and to have men do what she wants them to do, she really wants her dogs, and her freedom. Her dogs and her freedom turn out to be one and the same. There is a wonderful scene where I think she is driving in the car and she is singing, as in a ritual chant, the names of all her favorite dogs.

Harrison: Well that’s how we all have these if we observe these sort of private survival rituals to hold back the world and then there is the magic of naming. And when she can remember all the names of all these dogs that she has either owned or trained, that revives her.

Smith: Let me just briefly interrupt our conversation to inform our listeners that my guest today is novelist, poet, screenwriter, Jim Harrison whose new book, Julip, a delightful, lovely collection of three novellas was recently published by Houghton Mifflin. Jim, there have been myths about you: you have been designated in the past as a "macho-writer" but you have written in a female voice quite wonderfully: Dalva, your novel and certainly you have written from feminine perspectives and there is a wide assortment of women in these three novellas. You are hardly a regional writer; these three stories, one takes place primarily in Florida, the other one up in Michigan with Brown Dog and then the third one, most of it is in southeastern Arizona. Why does the literary world like to put its writers into little pigeon holes?

Harrison: It’s just a cheap convenience. I go to New York a lot to eat and to talk to what I call "smart people" because they are a little less concentrated elsewhere in the United States if you get what I mean. Everyone that doesn’t live in New York or the Eastern Seaboard will tell you that it is one of our dream coasts. This is a regional writer which of course is nonsense. That was convenient, say in the twenties and thirties and forties particularly with southern writers who McGuane has observed traditionally in their crotchless panties in New York.

Smith: Well you write marvelously about Michigan but you certainly write about a lot of other places too.

Harrison: Well I like to think we are all sort of international because not only do I resent regionalism, but nationalism isn’t very interesting either. What’s the point about talking about the NBA when we’ve got Gunter Grass and Gabriel Marquez and any number of South Americans. I think at best that literature has always been an international thing.

Smith: As you say, nationalism is going through one of its most ugly and cruel and inhumane phases now all over the world.

Harrison: Well yea, it’s a combination of tribalism and xenophobia. I find it utterly maddening. It comes out in odd ways- every state has its own anthology. Consequently by population the California Poetry Anthology would have to be 1100 times larger than the one in South Dakota. You know how much kind of nonsense there is and simply who cares. I mean this is made work of the lowest forger.(Laughs)

Smith: (Laughs) In the third novella, Julip, The Beige Dolorosa, Philip is your fifty-year old central character, hero, whatever. Philip is victimized quite absurdly by what we now call political correctness in the academy. Through a series of outlandish and comic snaffoos he is railroaded out of his college position in southern Michigan. But there is something about Philip, he also is a comic character but there is a great deal of enlightenment in his personality as he goes to a new world out in the Southwest. Is he also the victim of his own fixed ideas, let’s say when he is still teaching at college?

Harrison: Well yea because he is carrying about a thousand pounds of very average assumptions around with him. So frequently you jerk these people out of a sense of geographical security and then something interesting happens to them. It has been very odd in the scholarly world. Those political correct things are always insane. There was one in Chicago a couple of months ago, where a religion professor talked about the part in the Torah where if the Rabbi falls off the roof and lands on a woman and enters her, is he guilty? But there were four complaints from students that this is sexist, no matter that it was in the Torah so now the man is monitored. Of course, what that really is, what we are suffering now from, is a really extreme form of moral aggression. My Italian publisher, for instance, is at a dinner party in California. It was outside with the wind off the Pacific and she was asked not to smoke outside. This is in an area where say you’re landing in Los Angeles and the entire sky looks like a big cloud of yellow snot from car pollution. So that again is a moral aggression. We are back in what I like to think is a Puritanical Cuisinart.

Smith: I wonder if that’s it. Philip Caulkins, your central character in The Beige Dolorosa, his trouble begins one day when he goes into his Milton class at this college that thinks of itself as the Swarthmore of the Midwest and says, "Good morning, you ladies are looking lovely today" and of course the female students in the class report him and that’s the first of the series of snaffoos that finally gets him exiled. As outlandish and absurd as this can be, as you hear about it in colleges and universities, is this a symptom of something else?

Harrison: Well sure, what it is I think, actually, is so unlikely a person of stamina. Robin said something there, I think he’s the one that said the people are trying to organize such an explicit set of rules to defend the perimeters of their fears. So if they are not doing anything else, that means more and more and more rules and it’s of course a reflection of political insanity. I like best what Abe Rosenthal said about his training- it did not include listening to bed springs. It’s just a desperate intellectual immaturity. We’ve lost a great population of European scholars that came here during World War II. You know they’ve all retired now so now we have people with no, say wide range, of frame of reference, either scholarly or life wise. So the trenches are narrower and deeper and nobody wants to permit anyone else to have a trench of any sort.

Smith: It looks like with the density of population and everything else and mystification, why it’s going to get worse because the depths of this paranoia are going to be something much more or less than comic in the future. On the other hand, Philip, when he goes to the Southwest and meets a strange world, he is incompetent and inept in all kinds of ways, he can’t even cook, but he achieves a kind of freedom. Toward the end of the story he asks, "What I want to know is if I don’t find the freedom in this life, when will I find it?" And then he reflects shortly later, "Frankly, I have discovered nature." Through the agency of his daughter he is going to rename all the birds of North America which is wonderful! It is like starting all over again with the human race. Jim, I was wondering on the subject of freedom and deliverance, which you know runs through these stories and a lot of your work, you have both in your personal life and in your work, great affinities with nature- what we like to call the natural world. I think you said once that you had always had great admiration for bears and wolves and that figures in these stories and in your screenplay as well. Is that true? Is there something about bears and wolves, in particular, that gives you a sense of deliverance?

Harrison: Yea, for any creature, sometimes we tend to forget that we are nature too and I like to think of all this extremely to each person I know. One of my closest friends had to go to the Southwest from New York fifteen years ago for asthma and we were taking a mountain walk. Neil Clarmont is his name, and he said, " Don’t you think that reality is really an aggragate of the perceptions of all creatures?" So I like to look at it that way, the sort of ‘we are not alone’ thing and obviously we are the dominant species but since I live in relatively wild areas much of the year, that’s my reality: forests and mountains. I don’t feel like that this is particularly a green thing; it’s always been true of people that live in close proximity to the natural world that that’s what they think. Just like that’s what city people think about cities. New York City to me is nature, too.

Smith: That’s right, it’s human nature.

Harrison: You can’t see the bloody sky.

Smith: (Laughs) I think there’s a bit of dialogue in the book about that, that we are all part of nature. Let me interrupt once again. I am talking with fiction writer, poet, and screenwriter, Jim Harrison about his delightful new work of fiction, Julip, which has been published recently by Houghton Mifflin. Jim, there is many more things that I loved in those three novellas, particularly that you have great admiration and sympathy for American Indians. Your picaresque hero, Brown Dog who comes back from an earlier novella, gets involved with an Indian issue and of course they set out for the West at the end of that story. They are going to California as I recall. Speaking of which, you have written a number of screenplays, Wolf, Legends of the Fall, et cetera, and you have adapted your own screenplays as well as have written original ones. It is obviously rewarding. Financially it’s better perhaps than teaching in academia as poor Philip Caulkins does, but is there something creatively rewarding about adapting your own fiction or writing screenplays?

Harrison: No, I won’t adapt my own fiction anymore because it occurred to me that I have already written that in the best form I knew how but I am not really a very good screenwriter but I’m thought to be pretty good at making up new stories which is what I enjoy- to what my mother used to call my fibs. I love it. At least the first and second draft of the screenplay are really quite rewarding because you are getting to create another world. Besides, I didn’t really have a choice; I couldn’t make a living as a novelist and a poet and I was temperamentally unsuited for teaching. I was extremely claustrophobic in the idea of living in an academic community or teaching everyday. It would just drive me crazy.

Smith: (Laughs) It has its debit side to be quite suffocating.

Harrison: It was just a sheer claustrophobia because I love literature and read more scholarly books now than when I was in college.

Smith: That’s ironic. Did you adapt Legends of the Fall?

Harrison: Yes, I wrote the first couple drafts of it but the best work, the real work, was done by this Bill Wittliff who wrote Lonesome Dove for TV. I was too close to sorted out; it’s an architectural problem almost to start it out to get as much possible of the story.

Smith: I just want to ask you one quick question about Wolf and the character in Wolf. I believe you have written about, perhaps it’s an Indian Legend, about when someone is sick they find deliverance or they find some kind of restitution in taking the form of an animal. I wonder if the Jack Nicholson character who is a sensitive publishing editor is a variation of that?

Harrison: Well yea. They tend to make it more of a werewolf but my origin of the ideas, was Native American, in the Northern Creek because that is what you do. Everyone has an animal and the animal helps to make you well.

Smith: Well listen Jim, we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much Jim Harrison for your distinctive, comic and mythic voice. It is a great delight and really a great resource to our literary culture. Thanks so much. The book is Julip by Jim Harrison and was recently published by Houghton Mifflin, Seymour Lawrence. This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on The Book Show.

Laura Solomon, Student Intern, NYS Writers Institute

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Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison

Poet, novelist, screenwriter, native of northern Michigan, Jim Harrison began his writing career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Plain Song, in 1965. Wolf: A False Memoir launched his fiction writing career in 1971, but it wasn't until 1979 that he gained commercial and critical success with the release of Legends of the Fall, a trio of novellas. Legends of the Fall was adapted as a major motion picture in 1995 starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn.

In addition to Legends of the Fall, several other novels and novellas by Harrison have been made into movies including Carried Away (1996), starring Dennis Hopper and Amy Irving (based on the novel Farmer); Wolf (1994) starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer; and Revenge (1990) starring Kevin Costner and Anthony Quinn (based on one of the novellas in Legends of the Fall). Dalva was made into a TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett in 1996.

Harrison’s most recent collection of novellas is The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000), which Booklist considered proof "that Jim Harrison is a master of the genre." The book was named a "Notable Book" by the New York Times Book Review and "Best Fiction of 2000" by the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It prompted The Washington Times to call Harrison "a national treasure."

Harrison’s other works include his collected essays in Just before Dark: Collected Nonfiction, (1991), and the novels Warlock (1981), an account of the mid-life crisis of an unemployed executive; Dalva (1988), the story of a Nebraskan farming family, which he continues in its sequel The Road Home (1998); and a collection of three novellas, Julip (1994). His collected poems The Shape of the Journey was published in 1998. His latest publications include the nonfiction food book The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand (2001), and a memoir Off to the Side (November 2002), which chronicles his formation and growth as a writer—from his upbringing in Michigan, where, as a teenager, he discovered the power of writing, through the austerity of the Depression, to his success as a Hollywood screenwriter and world-renowned novelist. (amended from quote on the book)

Jim Harrison writes of men and women in rural areas, often in very small communities, who are dealing with loss and searching for answers. The small, composite events that build life, as Harrison presents them, are often funny, sometimes beautiful, nearly pathetic. In a style of off-handed familiarity Harrison touches the reader without ever becoming sentimental; the vividness of his writing reminds us of the ache it is to be human. This is particularly evident in his novels about the Northridge family Dalva (1988) and The Road Home (1998), where it is made clear that each person’s life is not an isolated series of events, but part of a greater flow; it is the intermingling of many peoples’ lives that make each of our individual ones.

Integral to all of Harrison’s writing is his "intoxication with words;" respect for nature, in both a physical and spiritual manner; and concern about loss. These themes are readily apparent in his poetry. Described as "one of our finest … poets" by M.L. Rosenthal in the NY Times Book Review, Harrison’s poems remain firmly in the physical, natural world. They can be acutely meditative, such as in the 673 line title poem to The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems which considers "how do you reconcile yourself to yourself – and the world – after the death of a child?" The poem begins with water, reminds us how it shapes the earth, how there are rivers and currents in our lives. How the speaker "got there from here," is a mystery until we are presented with the ‘here’ of a niece’s death:

Near the estuary north of Guilford
my brother recites the Episcopalian
burial service over his dead daughter.
Gloria, as in Gloria in excelsis.
I cannot bear this passion and courage;
my eyes turn toward the swamp
and sea, so blurred they'll never quite
clear themselves again. The inside of the eye,
vitreous humor, is the same pulp found
inside the squid. I can see Gloria
in the snow and in the water. She lives
in the snow and water and in my eyes.
This is a song for her. ll 55-67

The pain of this loss, the unbearable, must-be-borne, death of a child, causes the speaker to turn to nature. Gloria is there.

Light snow in early May,
wolf prints in alluvial fan,
moving across the sandbar
in the river braided near its mouth
until the final twist; then the prints
move across drift ice in a dead
channel, and back into the swamp.
The closest I came to describing it:
it is early winter, mid-November
with light snow, the ground rock hard
with frost. We are moving but I can't
seem to find my wife and two daughters.
I have left our old house and can't remember
how to find the new.

The days are stacked against
what we think we are ll 77-92

In contrast to the brother’s "passion and courage" of Christianity, and hence a certain belief in an afterlife, a better place, the speaker turns to nature, to an implied spirituality of renewal and connection with the rest of the earth. He reminds himself of our connections to nature by mentioning the same fluid being in our eyes and in squids. We are not completely dissimilar, unconnected to other animals. He sees Gloria in snow and water and the tears of his eyes. Again and again in the poem a renewal of nature comes before us, as does the potential for death. There is a "Light snow in early May" which is Gloria, but snow is also water and nutrients for the soil. The wolf, who kills to live, has left his tracks: he is not a threat, but a constant presence we can't forget. Gloria’s death has shaken the speaker, he can't find the new house, the old house, the old ways are gone. The new ways aren’t made yet. The poem continues:

I forgot where I heard that poems
are designed to waken sleeping gods;
in our time they've taken on nearly
unrecognizable shapes as gods will do;
one is a dog, one is a scarecrow
that doesn't work – crows perch
on the wind-whipped sleeves,
one is a carpenter who doesn't become Jesus,
one is a girl who went to heaven
sixty years early. Gods die,
and not always out of choice, ll 470 –80

When they live in rivers
it’s because rivers have no equilibrium;
gods resent equilibrium when everything
that lives, moves …
Water gods, moon gods, god fever,
sun gods, fire gods, give this earth diver
more songs before I die. ll 486-89, 518-20

The consideration of poetry comes into the poem, as it must, since poetry, for a poet, is something that cannot be separated from life, that is, from the rivers and currents. In Just before Dark: Collected Nonfiction (1991) Harrison cites Joseph Campbell and notes how "A poet is supposed to be the hero of consciousness, and the most destructive force in his or her life is liable to be the unwritten poem." Unwritten poems can be bad currents; writing the poem right – as honestly as is possible – makes for a better life.

to understand a man, or woman, growing
old with eagerness you first consider
the sensuality of death, an unacknowledged
surprise to most. In nature the physiology
has heat and color, beast and tree
saying aloud the wonder of death;
to study rivers, including the postcard
waterfalls, is to adopt another life ll 524-31

Harrison makes it clear, without being didactic: we are all moving towards death, but it’s a sensuous dance (i.e. not alone) and one done on water (change, life).

Some of Harrison’s poems in this collection are full of joy and deceptively simple. The spontaneously joy in "Porpoise" is infectious. The happiness of seeing a baby porpoise watching you is made painfully exquisite by the fact that, "Porpoises dance for as long as they live./ You can do nothing for them./ They alter the universe.//" Our inability to make porpoises happy is part of the awe at our mutual existence here as part of the earth. It’s humbling, and uplifting, and acknowledges a generosity of spirit, to find the joy of fish not merely uplifting but somehow changing the world: "They alter the universe." We can take not credit for our luck, here, it has nothing to do with us and it is terribly, terribly important.

"The Brand New Statute of Liberty," also in The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems, stands out of the collection as the only openly political poem. The premise is a dream in which the artist gets an NEA grant and creates a necklace of indigenous skulls for the Statute of Liberty. The speaker is matter-of-fact about the job, "I'm not going to get heavy-handed – / A job is a job." Methodically he gathers some patrons of the arts, rents a helicopter and a football field so the skulls of indigenous people and animals, the skulls of slaves and other persecuted people can be strung into "a seven-tiered necklace/ of seven thousand skulls." In the winter winds there will be "a crack and chatter of bone against metal,/ the true sound of history, this metal striking bone." The hard consonants in "clack, chatter, skulls" support and reinforce the idea of metal striking bone. The most horrific element of the image of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the European downtrodden (her back turned towards America) wearing a necklace of the indigenous people and slaves is the "smile, almost a smirk" the Statue wears as she drops "the torch to fondle the jewels." This is cutting political commentary on how history is written, how the symbolism of national images can hide other truths, and how those who benefit from the way the story/image is traditionally written do not always care who in their path has been cut down. "But what beauty" the speaker exclaims in his "just doing my job, mam’m" manner, "when the morning summer sun glances/ off these bony pates!" What beauty, indeed.

The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems (1998), contains 30 years of Harrison’s verse plus "Geo-Bestiary" a new sequence of poems which Donna Seaman in Booklist state, "go off like fireworks with a bang." All but two of Harrison’s books of poetry have gone out of print, so this publication is timely.

Harrison is, perhaps, best known for his collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall (1979), one of which was turned into a film by the same title in 1994 by Tri-Star. About the collection, Raymond Carver said, "I ma'am begin to do justice to the nuances of character and honest complexities of plot in this work. … The writing is precise and careful – and sings withal" (Washington Post Book World). Garrett Epps praises Legends of the Fall: "These violent, compelling novellas startled, angered, and disturbed me … They are, beyond question, the work of a gifted and accomplished writer." But they are not for everyone; Epps notes that "Harrison writes about – and, I think, almost completely for – men" (Washington Post Book World). But this has changed in his later work.

In Julip (1994), another collection of novellas, "the mythology of maleness often fails; appropriately enough, it is a woman, Julip … who comes most decisively to wisdom" writes Jonis Agee, New York Times Book Review. Dalva and its sequel The Road Home, follows a few generations of the Northridge family and continues this new tradition of stronger female characters. In these later novels Harrison depicts believable women. His female characters, here, have depth – pasts, potential futures, emotional range, and multi-faceted lives. They are fully-drawn characters, integral to the novel. But Harrison can sometimes still get them wrong. The world is not a neutral place, yet Harrison’s female characters often exist in ignorance of this fact: men and women are treated differently in this world and this, in turn, affects how they act in the world. Harrison’s female characters can feel like women drawn for a neutral place.

The Northridges are a Nebraska farming family with a grand-father patriarch who is half-Sioux. Louise Erdrich writes of Dalva, it is "A work of humor, an unified lament … Voices that cut through time and cross barriers of culture and gender to achieve a work in chorus … Dalva is suspended in its own beauty" and is to be "read with trust and exuberance" (The Chicago Tribune).

There are some issues that the Northridge family must deal with: such as, what traditional academics might do to the family’s papers, which date from the end of the Civil War through the massacre at Wounded Knee; concerns about Dalva’s son, given up for adoption when she was 15; helping other people survive (Dalva is, for some time, a social worker; Naomi was the only schoolteacher in the area). Jim Dwyer describes The Road Home as "not only a compelling drama but a profound consideration of how one lives a meaningful life" (Library Journal). The novel is full of insightful, quirky, true-to-life moments, such as when Dalva’s dog fiercely chases off a snorting and stomping bull, and thus protects her, then is terrified by a stick two seconds later (because as a puppy he was frightened by a snake). Or when Naomi, Dalva’s mother, goes to the barn in a blizzard to check on a pet crow, who has proudly left a dead mouse tucked under the windshield wiper of her car for her. Naomi and the crow together watch the blizzard, "this wonderful nothing." Or when Dalva’s biological son, who rejoins her when he is an adult, silently holds her hand and sits with her after she has been fired. When Naomi first meets Nelse, the grandson given up for adoption, there is an appealing acceptance of the unusual and a touch of wry humor:

Which brings me back to Nelse, who seems to be cut from the same cloth, as we used to often say before people stopped making their own clothes. When he appeared that early summer morning in a peculiar green pick-up with lightning bolts on the door panels I had, of course, no idea who it would be other than a seasonal employee of the Department of the Interior and that seemed odd as we had done a bird survey only a few years ago. He had barely taken a step out of the pick-up before I recognized him to be the son of Dalva and her misbegotten lover. What else could a mother think when her fifteen-year-old becomes pregnant? His immediate mannerisms were almost too male. There is such a thing, God knows. When he came toward me from the truck I actually prayed I'd like him as the opposite was possible. Shyness and arrogance can both be close to narcissism and he seemed to possess both, though I very soon recognized that like a few of my students over the years Nelse, rather than being arrogant, had simply made up his mind about too many things when he was too young. His speech was abrupt as if he had held onto what he was going to say moments too long, paused to reconsider his surroundings, then let go. When we first sat on the porch there were the briefest of sidelong glances while he was evidently deciding that I didn't know who he was. I had trouble keeping my composure because after a few minutes I could tell I would like him in part because of his resemblance to my daughter, and in part because of his immediately obvious interest in the natural world. (293)

Momentous events are depicted in a familiar manner and shown to be part of a flow of lives, rather than definitive or central, isolated happenings. Readers see this again when Dalva goes to a powwow and is sharply reminded by others that she has the luxury of being able to be considered white in the white world:

…Soon after, when I met up again with my radical friends, including the Lakota couple at the powwow, I was icily reminded by them that such people as myself, unlike themselves, always had a "return ticket." I hadn't the heart to be angry with them at the time because it was true. At the gathering what the couple still had was the questionable civility left over from ideological exhaustion. Demonstrating had been replaced by not very dramatic legal maneuvers, partly because the central firebrands had been faced with the intractability of white minds to whom the continuance of the emotional content of Manifest Destiny was as natural as morning coffee.

So I merely chatted with Lakota couple though when we said good-bye she hugged me and called me "sister." Christ, life wears us out, I thought, watching them walk away with the studied gait of advanced retirees when they were really only my own age. I avoided a contingent of thoroughly white bliss-ninnies nearby, who are the source of much humor among Native Americans, along with the representations of them on television and in the movies. There is a false identification and wan hope of brushing against those who are falsely considered to have an almost genetic virtue, which in itself creates the additional difficulty of distance from the true problems. If you have been horribly swindled and desire reparations to survive you scarcely want to become a totem for the derelicts of the sadistic culture, however benign. If you want to help me don't fawn but go home and kick your congressman in the ass is the plaintive, mostly unvoiced request. You don't greedily suck out of another culture what you have failed to find in your own heart. You may recognize it in another culture but only if it already exists in the core of your own soul. (383)

Again and again, in The Road Home, we are shown the comedy, ache, and wonder of the composite moments that go into making life.

The Beast God Forgot to Invent is Harrison’s latest collection of novellas. The narrator of the title novella is a curmudgeonly ex-bookseller Norman Barn and one of three regular caretakers of Joe, a young man brain damaged from a motorcycle accident, but ambulatory, nomadic, even. Norman tries to make sense of the events leading up to Joe’s death by writing his testimony to the coroner’s inquiry:

I can try to determine the nature of Joe by my observations and what he told me; also from the three notebooks he left me. Or so I think. But then it would be needlessly exhausting to defend the nature of my mind that creates the perceptions about Joe. These last three rainy days I have begun to perceive certain limitations I Barn sensed before and am unwilling to defend as virtuous. I am possibly less nifty than I thought. This won’t precipitate a depression as the rain has already managed that quite well, though I admit it has been a lucid, reductive pratfall, a threshold rain.

In July, for instance, Joe was visited by a young woman I found quite unpleasant for the first few days. This girl blew her nose more often than any other mortal due, she said, to an allergy of some sort. She was of normal height but quite slender, wearing the kind of floppy clothes that conceal the actual shape. She was a graduate student in comparative literature at Michigan State University, down in East Lansing, a school I know little about except that their teams are referred to as the Spartans and are in the Big Ten. I went to Northwestern myself and though it has an excellent scholastic reputation this fact did not reduce the torpor I felt as a student. There I go again. Who gives a flat fuck? I am scarcely interesting even to myself. I am the personification of Modern Man, the toy buyer who tries to thrive at the crossroads of his boredom. (13)

Joe’s death reminds Norman of his own mortality, as well as his own interests and connections to life. Like in Moby Dick, where we are presented with everything you ever wanted to know about whales yet still do not know the whale, Norman is aware that his perceptions are just that, his versions of who Joe was. Norman is aware that there are thirteen + ways to look at a Joe, which Mob make his quirky version any less valid or significant to his life.

P.R. Dyjak
Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English and Women’s Studies, University at Albany

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Jim Harrison
See also Sunday Gazette Article

Israeli and Palestinian Poetry: A Literary Encounter

Palestinian literature is, almost without exception, a literature of resistance, a celebration of militancy, a cry of pain, and a longing for ancestral property. In this context, the poetry and short stories of Taha Muhammad Ali often appear subtler, friendlier, and occasionally more comical. Ali is a Palestinian poet and writer who lives in Israel. His first collection in English, Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story, was published by the not-for-profit Israeli publishing company Ibis Editions in 2000.

Like his contemporaries, Ali writes almost exclusively about an intolerable present and a vanished past. He often romanticizes and pines for the rural village of his boyhood. Unlike his fellow Palestinian writers, however, Ali avoids taking a heroic stance.

In the poem ‘Abd El-Hadi Fights a Superpower,’ Ali writes:

In his life
he neither wrote nor read.
In his life he
didn’t cut down a single tree,
didn’t slit the throat
of a single calf.
In his life he did not speak
of the New York Times
behind its back,
didn’t raise
his voice to a soul
except in his saying:
"Come in, please,
by God, you can’t refuse."

his case is hopeless,
his situation
His God-given rights are a grain of salt
tossed into the sea.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
about his enemies
my client knows not a thing.
And I can assure you,
were he to encounter
the entire crew
of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,
he’d serve them eggs
sunny side up,
and labneh
fresh from the bag.

Ali presents El-Hadi, a recurring symbol in his work of the Palestinians and the Arab underclass in general, as entirely blameless. He does so, however, in a way not often seen in Palestinian poetry. El-Hadi is no Saladin; he’s a simple soul who has a lot in common with the all-suffering kleine menscheles ("little men") of Yiddish literature, such as I. L. Peretz’s "Bontshe the Silent" or I. B. Singer’s "Gimpel the Fool." Such characters are always paradoxical, at once saintly and deserving of blame for their own inaction, lack of aggression and tolerance of their persecutors. Though El-Hadi casts no stones at his enemies (in this case, the U. S. Navy), the poem itself is intended as a kind of stone cast at those outside forces the poet holds responsible for El-Hadi’s predicament.

And though Ali’s poetry lacks heroic poses, he appears to castigate himself for their absence. In nakedly ironic fashion, the poet-speaker of the poem "Empty Words" accuses his own notebook of betrayal for not containing such passages as:

I wish I could be
a rock on a hill
which the young men
from Hebron explode
and offer as gifts to Jerusalem’s children,
ammunition for their palms and slings! And where is the passage
in which I wanted
to be a rock on a hill
gazing out from on high
hundreds of years from now
over hordes
of masked liberators!

A resident of Nazareth, an Arab city within Israel’s 1948 borders, Taha Muhammad Ali shared the Palestinian experience of dispossession during the Israeli War of Independence. The poet grew up in the rural Palestinian village of Saffuriya, fled with his parents to Lebanon in 1948, slipped back across the border into Israel soon after, and has lived in Nazareth up to the present. His work is famous for its depictions of Saffuriya, long supplanted by a kibbutz. An Israeli reviewer writing in Ha’aretz, a leading Hebrew daily, said:

"Ali's Saffuriya. . .is delicately and intricately observed, as if with the fine brush of a miniature painter. . .Using these precision tools to tremendous effect, Ali draws the reader right into the nexus of his experiences; his patient, insistent and often beautiful iterations of who is who and what is what are as compelling and evocative as the faces and places than any reader has himself or herself loved...Never Mind is a must."

Poet and translator Gerald Levin observes that Ali idealizes Saffuriya in the introduction to Never Mind:

Saffuriya, or at least the village of his childhood, where myth and reality converged, shone in the poet’s mind as a place of prelapsarian innocence and embodied, in Palestinian terms, that period before the "great catastrophe," an-nakba, brought about by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the consequent shattering and exodus of the Palestinian community.

For Ali, there appears to be no bright side to the events of recent history. The issue is explored allegorically in the poem, "Sabha’s Rope," which tells of a dairy cow named Sabha who dies after swallowing a rope. The death is a catastrophe for Sabha’s owners, and all of the villagers rush to buy Sabha’s meat to assist the family. No one is willing to eat the meat, however. In their grief, they regard it as a human corpse. As with an-nakba, no one is willing to make the best of the catastrophe. One voice in the poem asserts that, in the former village, even "the bitterness was good / like chicory / or better!" Another voice goes further and says:

Let me tell you,
by the book of Almighty Allah,
I swear to you,
I was prepared,
in fact I would have preferred,
and with all my heart I would have agreed,
to swallow a rope longer than Sabha’s
if only
we could have stayed in our village.

Possession of the village is esteemed more than life itself. Indeed, the sentiment of many poems is that life in exile is no life. Happiness is no happiness. The speaker of the poem "Warning" tells imaginary riflemen who have him in their sights:

What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn’t happiness.
trust me:
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.

Ali’s work is noteworthy for its simple lines of colloquial Arabic. Most Arabic poetry is written in ornate literary Arabic derived from the language of the Koran and understood throughout the Arab world. Ali’s Arabic is a direct, blunt colloquial Arabic particular to his region. As such, it helps to preserve the language of Saffuriya as the poet memorializes his boyhood village. Also unlike most Arabic literature, Ali’s poetry does not make dense allusions to historic literary works, a fact that may make it more accessible to a non-Arabic audience.

Like Ali, Aharon Shabtai is a poet with a political agenda. While Ali’s politics are muted by Palestinian standards, Shabtai is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government’s approach to the Palestinian conflict. Many of Israel’s leading writers (including Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman) have long served as eloquent spokesmen for the Israeli peace movement, showing sensitivity in fiction, journalism and activism to the political rights and human dignity of Palestinians. Shabtai, on the other hand, takes positions that many leftists in Israel might find extreme, even offensive. In October 2000, Shabtai joined other radicals in asking the U. S. Congress to suspend all foreign aid to Israel after Prime Minister Ehud Barak failed to prevent Ariel Sharon from visiting the Temple Mount. In November 2001, Shabtai also signed a letter in support of a citizen’s initiative in Ann Arbor, Michigan requesting that the city council "launch a campaign to stop any investments in companies and trusts that have relations with Israel."

Much of Shabtai’s recent poetry is overtly political. Indeed, his forthcoming book of poems in Hebrew will be called Politics. A few of Shabtai’s political poems have been published in English at the author’s request on the website of the Independent Media Center. In these poems, Shabtai lays full blame for the conflict upon Israel, accuses Israeli troops of aiming to kill children, and derides liberals for their toleration of Israeli policies. In "Shtei Nekudot" ("Two Points"), a poem published in Ha’aretz in October 1998, he attacks Israeli peaceniks and writers in the peace camp:

But to complain, to lament, to cry,
is only a part of the tax-package required of the educated citizen.
The country’s corrupt, dishonorable and stuttering rulers want the freezer to be full of delicate literary meat.

Shabtai is perhaps better known in Israel for his literary work than for his politics. Winner of the 1993 Prime Minister’s Prize for his translations of Aeschylus and other Greek dramatists, Shabtai is Israel’s foremost translator of Greek into Hebrew. He is also know for his ribald poems that explore keen and often frustrated sexual urges— poems regularly published in the Hebrew press. Many of these also appear in Love & Selected Poems, Shabtai’s only collected published in English, a collection that is rarely concerned with politics.

Published in 1997, the book contains poems from several works published in Hebrew, including The Domestic Poem (1976), Love (1987), Divorce (1990), Ziva (1990), Metazivika (1992) and The Heart (1995). Though already well-established as a leading scholar of Greek, Shabtai first achieved national attention in 1987 as a poet with the Hebrew publication of Love. The collection is a series of poems addressed to an unattainable, married lover named D. The poems shocked readers of Hebrew poetry with their exuberant lewdness, while presenting an entirely new and exciting poetic voice. As Peter Cole says in his introduction to the English collection:

"…we begin to understand that Love is illuminating the eros of the incessant collapse and reconstruction of one’s world, along an arc of potentially shared passion and understanding. Failure and success in that process are for love-stories proper, and Love itself contains a wild one. But the book as a whole tells of the destructive-constructive nature of those stories, and of the painful, particle-cloud-like physics of self. All of this was new territory for Hebrew poetry in the mid-eighties and it established Shabtai as a major voice on the Israeli scene, in many ways the rogue successor to European-born Yehuda Amichai and Natan Zach…."

The speaker’s obsession with D. is paradoxical. She is unattainable even when attained, and often seems most attainable when she is out of reach, a mere figment of the speaker’s lust. In poem "vi" of the "Additional Poems" of Love, he speaks of enclosing her in the artifice of his poetry like the artificial cow built for Pasiphae, enabling him, like the giant snow-white bull of Poseidon, to mate with her (if only in his imagination).

Allusions to Greek mythology abound in Shabtai’s work, not only because they are readily at hand for a scholar of Greek theatre, but also because the Greeks regarded sexual couplings-- often illicit-- as one of the principal preoccupations of the gods. Shabtai, too, frequently sees the erotic as essentially divine. D. is compared to a host of goddesses and mythical figures. Speaking of her body, the speaker says:

I’m well aware
this is divine geography that the navel is Delphi—
Omphalos—the navel that in the vulva the gods are concealed….
(poem vii., "Additional Poems" in Love).

At the same time, the poet is highly aware of the baser aspects of the body. The sexual, in Shabtai, often touches the scatalogical and the bestial. The previous poem ends with yet another bovine image from a different source:

come, come out for me to the spring of Lerna like Io
agree to become a cow agree to be ravished for fate is always
violation and change—

which is to say, to love—

which is to say—
to be a god
sweetheart, you’ll have to become a cow if you don’t want to be less than a woman

Shabtai’s fondness for Greek imagery is often describe by critics as "Hellenism." In Jewish tradition, this word has a particular charge. Many Jews living in the land of Israel in the centuries before and after the Common Era embraced elements of a Greek culture that flourished throughout the Middle East. It is remembered as a culture that glorified the body and sought to assimilate Judaism into the polyglot, polytheistic majority. The conflict between Jewish traditionalists and Hellenizers erupted into open warfare during the time of the Maccabees, a war commemorated each year during Hanukkah.

In modern times, it is not unusual for members of the religious camp to draw parallels between the Hellenizers of old and modern secular Jews. Shabtai’s work, in its invocation of Greek gods, its eroticism, and its playful but subversive allusions to Hebrew scripture, cannot help but bring to mind those ancient conflicts. At the same time, Shabtai’s political poems inevitably recall the Biblical prophets, castigating Israel in hyperbolic terms from his vantage point on the extreme left.

By Chet Weinstock

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Israeli & Palestinian Poetry

James Lasdun: Caught Between Worlds

The scene, from early in James Lasdun’s novel, The Horned Man, is set: one night, a man, a professor, decides to head to the college where he teaches, located in the suburbs. Waiting on the train platform, he sees a group of "evening shift office cleaners, …movers and lifters for the big department stores." He is struck by them, by their role. "I watched them with a familiar apprehensive curiosity, sensing through them the vertiginous edge of that abyss of desolation one is never very far from in this country" (The Horned Man 31).

Occasionally, a writer will create a work, or a section of work, that acts as the keystone of interpretation, providing the reader a context through which she can critically approach their entire body of material. In the preceding scene, the quoted sentence acts as just such a critical catalyst for the work of writer James Lasdun. It helps to illuminate not only what drives him at thematic and larger structural levels, but also at the level of language, the nuts-and-bolts level of a writer’s tools.

James Lasdun is a writer in the fullest sense of the term. His first book of poetry, A Jump Start, was published in 1987, receiving positive reviews both in the U.S. and his native Britain. Since then, he has written two further books of poetry, Woman Police Officer in Elevator and Landscape with Chainsaw. He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry and winner of the 1999 Times Literary Supplement Poetry Competition. Landscape with Chainsaw was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the L. A. Times Book Award. The New York Times Book Review writes of his poetry, it "repeatedly flings us into verdant vibrancy animated by human drama. … [S]harp, slicing imagery gives Lasdun's poetry its deep notch of truth." In addition to his poetry, he has written three books of short stories and a number of screenplays. He was awarded the 1986 Dylan Thomas Award for short fiction. The film Sunday (for which he wrote the screenplay based on his short story, "Ate Menos") captured the Sundance Film Festival award for Best Screenplay and Grand Jury Prize in 1997. His short story, "The Siege," was made into the movie Besieged by filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci. Most recently, he published a novel, The Horned Man, which has been praised as "unputdownable, … a first novel … that belongs with John Fowles's The Collector, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper," and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. It is a masterpiece of chilling, mesmerizing control" (The Washington Post).

Thematically, much of Lasdun’s work seems an extension of the reconciliation of his two homes: while British born, Lasdun has lived in the U.S. for almost twenty years. There is an overtone in much of his writing that alludes to his internal dealings with, as he writes, "the vertiginous edge of that abyss of desolation one is never very far from in this country." The sense of his acculturation is particularly evident in his more recent works, both poetry and prose.

Landscape with Chainsaw poetically explores these themes in works like "Locals," "American Mountains," "Returning the Gift," and "Woodstock". In one poem, he writes:

I envied them. To be local was to know
which team to support: the local team;
where to drop in for a pint with mates: the local;
best of all to feel by birthright welcome
anywhere; be everywhere local … (Landscape 13)

The narrator, jealous of those who belong, sets himself apart with his jealousy. He sets himself apart with his lack of knowledge, his terminology of his birth place. Most importantly, he sets himself apart by his birthright (or lack thereof), something that will never change. In other places, Lasdun’s attempt to puzzle through the dichotomy is more subtle, as he works with individual elements of American cultural signposts: "Stripmall country: the chain / molecule of a shingled cinderblock cube / polymerized into HoJo’s, Jiffy Lube, / Walmart, Kmart and – where we’re headed – Miron" (Landscape 26). The image of a singularly suburban America is unraveled – it’s ubiquity, structure and growth patterns. He intentionally creates an over-saturated "paradise of brand names, an Eden where Adam would be responsible for product placement" (The New Criterion).

Lasdun’s novel, The Horned Man, beyond a roaring tale of psychological decline, also deals with issues of cultural estrangement. It has been described as a successful "Jamesian exercise in sensibility, … with a glistening thrillerish edge: a portrait of an Englishman abroad" (The Guardian).

The novel tells the story of one Lawrence Miller, a British professor of Gender Studies at a smaller American college, who, upon discovering a place-marker in one of the books in his office has been moved and someone has been making secret calls from his phone, becomes convinced this someone is secretly sharing his space. Thus begins a rather propelled descent into a "realm of existence as absurdly, shabbily gothic as the buildings I worked in" (The Horned Man 126). Miller soon begins to distrust both the onstage characters and those who remain at the page’s edge. In particular, he becomes obsessed with the seemingly antagonistic Bogomil Trumilcik, another non-American professor who, in the recent past, found himself embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal and was forced to leave the college. Trumilcik may or may not be the invisible presence in Miller’s office. As the elusive onlooker becomes increasingly intrusive and violent, Miller tears apart both his internal and external existences to find and stop him or her.

Miller’s British background is central to his character. Throughout the story, he is plagued by a colleague, Bruno Jackson, who happens also to be British. In a telling passage, Miller ruminates:

I felt he hadn’t given up hope of recruiting me as an ally. The fact that we were both English seemed to mean something to him. Though he had been in the States several years longer than I had, and seemed in many ways thoroughly Americanized (his accent had warped into an ugly transatlantic hybrid that made me feel protective about the purity of my own), he retained an interest in British popular culture, which he seemed to assume I shared. I remember listening to him talk volubly about a new cable show featuring British darts tournaments, and trying politely to match his enthusiasm, while all I really felt was the familiar melancholy that most things English seemed to arouse in me ever since I’d first arrived in the States as an Abramowitz Fellow at Columbia University (The Horned Man 21).

Jackson’s apparent ease of assimilation irritates Miller, who remains ill-at-ease with both cultures because he is no longer comfortable in either. While he finds it necessary to maintain the "purity" of his accent, he seems to want nothing to do with anything British, beyond a vague longing he experiences at the thought of his home country. In a later scene with his therapist, Miller relates an encounter with his upstairs neighbor that made him feel "almost … American." She asks him what he means by this, and he responded, "Released." He proceeds to explain that "everything [American] … was the expression of the single, simple sensation of release" (The Horned Man 65-6). Further into the story, he recounts a painful memory of his upbringing in Britain that colors his relations, particularly with women. Miller is a character weighted down with the potent baggage of his expatriation.

Beyond the clear thematic content of the keystone sentence, it also provides a sense of Lasdun’s work on the level of his language. Lasdun’s writing is a balancing act of linear, spare utilitarianism and lush, expansive imagery. He has been called "word-drunk," "jazzy," and "hyperkinetic," an author with a "sensuous love of words" (The New Criterion). As both a poet and prose writer, his style has been described as "flexible, rich, metaphorical, and lovely. … When we read him we know what language is for again, we know again what a story does, how it performs, with a refreshed novelty" (The Guardian). Lasdun truly seems to enjoy the tiny crenellations, grand buttresses and hidden passageways that construct each word, unique and appropriate to its purpose. This attention to narrative construction at the word level creates a compressed and slanted style that ultimately mirrors the stories he tells. The slightly askew effect on a reader is incredibly effective and uncanny.

Indeed, the paragraph in which the keystone sentence falls provides an example of this mirroring effect in both language and content:

A different crowd from the suit- and skirt-clad commuters waited under the Departures board. Somber-faced, with the drained pallor that comes from hard indoor labor. Evening-shift office cleaners, I guessed, movers and lifters for the big department stores, hernia-protection braces under their puff parkas. My train was announced, and I followed a group of them down to the track. They got out at stations servicing apartment complexes of crumbling cement with the bare iron bones showing through, or row housing built right up to the rail tracks. I watched them with a familiar apprehensive curiosity, sensing through them the vertiginous edge of that abyss of desolation one is never very far from in this country (The Horned Man 21).

Lasdun efficiently establishes the unsure, seedy underbelly of the night, something separate from the safety of daytime: "different crowd," "Departures," "somber-faced." He builds a tone of apprehension, a slipping sense of decay and disintegration ("apartment complexes of crumbling cement with the bare iron bones showing through") that mirrors not only the plot and the physical surroundings, but Miller’s own mental decay. The paragraph shifts and slopes from the solidity of the train platform to the final sentence, where the reader is left hanging at the "vertiginous edge of that abyss of desolation." The reader is able to experience the scene both as Miller observing the world around him and as herself observing Miller. Lasdun’s use of the full range of his language boosts the emotional and intellectual impact on the reader, creating a narrative that is all the more harrowing and satisfying.

A writer of far-reaching poetic and prose talent, James Lasdun was once described as "one of the secret gardens of English writing" (The Guardian). His works of poetry, prose and film are prominent examples of the possibilities of language to create and impart fully realized worlds, compact treasures to explore, into the hands of a reader. He is, indeed, one of the secret gardens, one which, fortunately for his readers, has flourished on both sides of the Atlantic.

Works Cited

Dirda, Michael. The Washington Post. 21 April 2002: BW15.

Lasdun, James. The Horned Man. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2002.

___________. Landscape with Chainsaw. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2001.

Logan, William. "All Over the Map." The New Criterion November 2001: http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/20/dec01/logan.htm.

Taylor, D.J. "Doors of Perception." The Guardian 23 February 2002: http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/generalfiction/0,6121,654276,00.html.

Tucker, Ken. "Poetry in Brief." The New York Times Book Review 19 August 2001: sec. 7: 17.

Wood, James. "A Style for All Seasons." The Guardian 29 May 1999: http://www.guardian.co.uk/saturday_review/story/0,3605,296058,00.html.

Aaron Seaman is a participant in James Lasdun's Intermediate/Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop, Fall 2002.

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James Lasdun

Ana Menéndez

In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd

Writers who have spent years trying to get published might get jealous at Ana Menéndez’s history of writing short fiction and publishing. Menéndez left journalism when she was 27 and entered the graduate writing program at New York University as a New York Times fellow. It was in the graduate program that she first began to write short stories. "In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd," caught the attention of Edna O’Brien, who Menéndez studied with for a semester. South African writer Breyten Breytenback, Menéndez's thesis advisor, was the first person to suggest that she had a book, and suggested that she send her collection to his editors. After her manuscript was first rejected, Menéndez got a new agent and in two weeks her collection of stories had sold "for more money than I thought I would ever get" (The Hartford Courant). "In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd," the title story, was published by the literary magazine Zoetrope and won a Pushcart Prize.

But like most Cinderella tales, behind quick fame are years of related hard work, done outside the literary world’s attention. Ana Menéndez’s sudden rise to fame for a collection of short stories is preceded by years of hard work as a reporter for The Miami Herald and The Orange County Register. It is from the stories she heard during her years as a reporter that she developed her short stories. Menéndez notes that "as the daughter of [Cuban] exiles, I have a certain understanding of the world and that informs what I write. And I do draw on some of the emotions that I’ve experienced or I’ve seen relatives experience. But the specific lines of the stories come mostly from my reporting days, and – unbelievable as it seems – from my time in India. It was there that I was really able to understand the universality of loss." Raised in Miami, Menéndez says that while she was a child, there was a family assumption that they would return to Cuban very soon. "I spoke only Spanish until I entered kindergarten and during summer vacations my mother taught us Spanish grammar and my father taught us to memorize Marti. And, of course, they talked about Cuba and what they had left behind constantly." The exile from Cuba "loomed as large in our lives as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden" Menéndez told Bookreporter.com senior editor Jana Siciliano (http//:www.bookreporter.com). It is this grief, this tragedy of Cuban exiles in Miami, as well as the details of their survival, that Menéndez’s stories tell.

It’s not surprising that Menéndez states that her biggest influence has been from poetry. She cites her uncle, poet Dionisio Martinez, as an influence and notes that "poetry is highly praised in my family. … I loved the beats, especially Gregory Corso. And James Dickey, Mark Strand, Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell. I could go on and on. Today I really admire the Cuban writers Zoe Valdes and Guillermo Cabrera-Infante. And of course Reinaldo Arenas, who I think was one of the most inventive of writers and courageous of men. Cormac McCarthy I adore. Harriet Doerr, Denis Johnson and the humorists Frank Davies and T. Coraghessen Boyle." Menéndez’s stories often contain strong central metaphors, revealing this poetic influence, and it helps if one lingers over each scene, as if it were a poem, in order to savor this evocative construction.

One of the larger metaphors include ‘waiting for rain’ in the beautifully paced "Confusing the Saints." In this tale a woman is anxiously waiting for her beloved husband’s raft to arrive from Cuba while Miami waits (for over 30 days) for rain. Self-described as homely, Clarita believes her husband is her one chance at love; his possible loss desiccates her, like the plants without water, their sustenance. In "Her Mother’s House" a daughter visits Cuba and seeks out her mother’s literal house. She comes to realize the importance of her mother’s dreams of the past, of the past house to her mother’s present life. In "Miami Relatives" metaphors evolve into allegory. The tale concerns the relationship of exiles from Cuba to the "old uncle" back in Cuba. The "old uncle" is Castro; the grandfather with the radio growing out of his ear is a grandfather obsessed with news of Cuba. In surrealistic fashion, we see how the young girl who narrates this story comes to terms with why her crazy family is so crazy.

In the title story of In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd Menéndez respectfully, deftly-handles a depiction of tragedy and perseverance. ‘Telling jokes’ is the main metaphor here, both in the saying of jokes and jokes that reveal. The story shows that the effects of great loss, of the exile from Cuba, of the death of a wife, do not end. People continue, but as we see in this story, there is a sharp awareness of what was lost, the indignities of life as an exiled minority, and the connection to friends and family that help us survive and define ourselves. Through his jokes "The Professor" Máximo – a professor in Cuba, a restaurateur in the U.S. where his academic credentials were worthless – shows both survival and grieving. Máximo tells his jokes to his buddies, a group of domino players, often gawked at by tourists who have come to see them play as "a slice of the past." Often Máximo tells a joke "so funny it breaks my heart," as his friend Raúl says. Such a one is the joke about the "short, insignificant mutt" Juanito who gets off a boat from Cuba and walks around Miami, running into a "white poodle … a refined breed of considerable class" who scorns his offer of love and marriage because of his mutt-hood. He’s in shocked silence for a moment. "He’s a proud dog, you see, and he’s afraid of his pain. ‘Pardon me, your highness,’ Juanito the mangy dog says. ‘Here in America, I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd." One of his friends responds – as they are all aware that Máximo’s jokes are about his life, the life of Cubans in exile – "He was a good dog."

P.R. Dyjak
Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English and Women’s Studies, University at Albany

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Ana Menéndez

Richard Russo, transcript, September 25, 2002
Introduction by Langdon Brown, Theatre Department, followed by Reading and Q&A

Brown: There is a special place in our affections for storytellers who put us in touch with the geography of our childhood and youth. The distance from eye to page is a safe range to contemplate the choice to leave home or to stay there, to calculate the dreams surrendered when we remain or the heritage squandered when we depart. This contemplation is a reader’s guilty pleasure, the guilt issuing from our ability in the imagination to stay at home and leave at the same time, avoiding the imperative of choice. And when imperative of choice is complicated by poverty and class we have entered the captivating tragic-comic world created by Richard Russo’s novels, a world those of us, who grew up in upstate New York know all to well. Living it is tough, but reading about it in Russo’s sure hands is, in the words chosen by William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the narrator of Straight Man, . . . "entertaining." Entertaining as the Roman critic Horace would have used the term to mean paradoxically instructive and pleasurable all at once.

In a rich collection of work, which now embraces novels, screenplays and short stories, Russo chronicles the bleak places left behind as the garbage dumps of globalization, places where people still find themselves obligated to live and struggle and hope in an economic moonscape. That he manages to validate these crippled lives is a tribute to his humane vision of the world. Critics repeatedly intone the word compassion in describing Russo’s gentle handling of his broken characters. That he manages to find humor and hope in this landscape is a tribute to his skill as an artist and to his capacity for forgiveness as a human being.

We visit these places in reading his work and leave reluctantly when the last page is turned. Mohawk, in his first and second novels, a town whose sustaining industry sickens and kills its own labor force, a labor force made up of characters with whom you and I went to high school, incidentally; the North Bath of Nobody’s Fool, unforgettable as a book and as the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the Paul Newman film examining the least fortunate citizens of the least fortunate upstate New York town imaginable, a spa whose springs have dried up located next to another spa town whose springs continue to gush. And then on to Railton and Allegheny Springs, a gratifying departure into academic life with Straight Man for which those of us who remain behind in academe are eternally grateful, even if we ruefully recognize our own folly in the scathing scenes of academic warfare too petty to be acknowledged anywhere but in fiction and the filing of grievances. Finally we move to similar territory in Maine in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, a touching and compelling look at a father and daughter in a dying mill town.

And now we have the gift of the precise and detailed short stories of The Whore’s Child. We even have the pleasure of meeting some old friends like Hank Devereaux again along with a new character who offers insight into Russo’s special gift, the old nun who takes a creative writing class and cannot distinguish between fiction and reality. Her classmates protest her violation of fictional principles but cannot resist the validity of her story. Readers of Richard Russo’s work are mesmerized in a similar fashion by his specificity of characterization, and a mastery of detail so judicious and consistent that he creates an illusion of life richer and more engaging than any life we can find in Johnstown, Gloversville, Ballston Spa, or even Albany. Like William Henry Devereaux Jr. we demand the addictive magic of the master storyteller. We want to be entertained and we are. Welcome back Rick Russo (applause).

Russo: Thank you Langdon. And thank you to the New York State Writers Institute. And to, my God, look at all of you. You can’t all be from Gloversville and Johnstown? [Looking at balcony] There are more people up there, astonishing. I’m going to read a couple of short sections from the last story in this collection called The Whore’s Child, called "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart." And I have to just tell you a few things here so that you won’t be totally lost. The title character Lin, short for Linwood is ten years old. His parents have recently separated and Lin is hoping that they will get back together again soon. His mother says that this may well happen although she says it is not going to until his father grows up. His father, for his part, says that it will happen only when his mother kisses his ass. You need to know that Lin has had a haircut the day before, a rather severe one. And you are going to meet Uncle Bert. You just need to know that when Uncle Bert is introduced, he and Lin’s father have been feuding for some time. I think that is all you need to know. The sections of this story each have titles and the titles are of things that are the mysteries of Lin’s life—things that he is trying to resolve. This first mystery is called "Cost."

"‘That Howard Kristi up there?’ his father wanted to know the next day. Their Sunday afternoon was already off to an unusual start…‘I suppose I could let it go for two grand,’ the man said. ‘Two-grand! Well, how about if I was somebody else?’ Lin’s father said, ‘Like one of your golfing buddies?’ ‘If you were somebody else?’ the man sighed, ‘What a wonderful world this would be.’"

This next section is called "Spaghetti."

"They were no sooner seated in Rigazzi’s, than Lin’s favorite waitress, the one who enjoyed giving his father a hard time came over. ‘I was beginning to think you died, Slick,’ she said, one hand on an ample hip. ‘You never come in anymore.’…His father dabbed his swollen lip with a napkin, wincing again, then pushed his plate away and studied Lin carefully. ‘Your cousin Audrey’s sure growing up, isn’t she?’ he finally observed, giving Lin a chill."

Thank you (applause). Thank you so much. We have time for some Q&A.

Q: I have always wondered of my favorite authors, who are their favorite authors. Who do you like to read?

Russo: Um, are we talking living or dead?

Q: Either.

Russo: If we are talking about living authors, the people that I like to read tend to fall into two distinct categories. There are those people that strike me as kindred spirits in some way. They are people who are trying to do in their work a lot of the same things that I am trying to do. Which means that many of them will be comic writers, not exclusively but many of them will be comic writers. I love the work, for instance, of Michael Malone, who I think, is not nearly well known enough. He’s terrific. Cathie Pelletier, a Maine writer from up where I live right now is a writer who is mining some of the same, working in the same mine that I am working in, always writing, often about the same class of people that I write about and bringing the same kind of compassion and never condescension to these people. And there are writers who I have almost nothing in common with and are doing very different things from what I am doing, and yet whose work—just because they are not hunting what I am hunting—simply amazes me in part because they are trying to do so many different things than I am doing. I think of a writer like Alice Munro, who I think is one of the best writers working in English today. You can pick up a bunch of Alice Munro stories and probably not have so much as a giggle from one end to the other, but she strikes me as just the most miraculous writer. Someone like William Trevor, I like a lot. But those are writers with whom I don’t feel any particular kinship but who continue book after book after book to just amaze me. I like to read both sorts just to remind myself that literature is about an awful lot of things and we needn’t be too narrow about it. Of dead people, the usual suspects. You could probably tell just from reading my work who I’ve gone to school on—Dickens certainly, probably first and foremost, Twain, Sherwood Anderson, Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Richard Yates.

Q: What were you thinking when you wrote the first novel and what inspiration did you draw from?

Russo: Ah, I always have trouble with questions that begin with, "what were you thinking." (Audience laughs) It assumes first of all that I was thinking. It was a long time ago as I remember it. I had a lot of thoughts, most of them worrisome. I was thinking that maybe I wasn’t a writer despite the fact I had been working at my apprenticeship for quite awhile. I was thinking that I was beginning a novel, that I would probably fail, and maybe I was kidding myself to think that I could write this book, that I just sat down to write. I was thinking about my obligations to my wife and kids. I was a professor at the time and had announced to them just a few years before that—to my wife, my children were too young to know just how foolish their father was being—that I did not really want to be a professor after all of these years of graduate study, and wanted to be a writer instead. I thought that’s the new career I would now try out at age twenty-nine or thirty. All of those things were what I was thinking about when I began Mohawk with some characters that I liked a lot and with a sense for the first time since I had been writing, which was over now many, many years of a serious apprenticeship, that writing the story of Mohawk, I might at last finally have found a subject that I could write about, and hoping that maybe my determination to do so when I probably should have resigned myself to my life as a professor of American Literature, hoping that that was not complete folly. That’s kind of a depressing story isn’t it. Those were my thoughts at the time. I think you were probably hoping for another sort of response altogether, but there you are.

Q: Are there distinctions to be drawn between the people who live in small towns and various regions—the difference between the people that might live in Mohawk or Bath as opposed to somebody who lives in Empire Falls?

Russo: I am sure there are, but I don’t know what they are. No, I am not sure there are. I think what has always surprised me in my writing about small towns and has taught me a good deal over the years, too, is a paradox that I always try to explain to my students which is, "The more specific that you make things the more different you make them from other things, paradoxically the more universal they seem to be." I was amazed in writing my first couple novels about upstate New York that when I went on book tour I would have people come up to me and say, "Boy, you are writing about my hometown." And I’d say, "Really, where are you from?" And they’d name some town in Mississippi or Oregon. Most people have remarked in fact that my Empire Falls is supposed to be in Maine. I say it’s in Maine and I give a lot of specific information about Interstates and local landmarks just to remind people it is in Maine. But most people have remarked that it is not all that different from Bath or Railton or Mohawk. And I think that is just because no matter where I set these towns, I remain interested in the same thing. I remain interested in community. I remain interested in these characters, the kinds of lives that they live. I am interested in class and so no matter where I set my characters down, no matter what the region is, they all end up to be the region of my imagination, which is largely the region of upstate New York no matter what it is that I am calling it.

William Kennedy and I were talking about some of these things and one of the things that I always marvel about Bill’s Albany novels, is that he has painted himself into so few corners. I discovered that in writing about Mohawk and The Risk Pool, I had said some things about Mohawk that when it came time to write my next novel I had to move it up the road a ways because there were things that wouldn’t work. By the time I got to write Nobody’s Fool I needed a lucky town and an unlucky town. I would have liked nothing better than to have set Nobody’s Fool in Mohawk. The problem was, I had written two novels about it and there wasn’t any luck anywhere around there (Audience laughs). So I had to move it up the road. When it came time to write Empire Falls, that could have very well been an upstate New York novel, except that I needed Max to be a house painter. And what I needed there was a coastal community that was well to do and I needed Max to be able to leave the mill town and leave his family for long periods of time and go paint rich people’s houses on the coast. Well, if I was going to put it in Mohawk, where was he going to go? And so what’s happened in my fiction and I noticed this, I still have family in the Gloversville, Johnstown area, whom I visit every now and then. And one of the things I have discovered in going back to visit those towns, is that I have a certain unreasonable annoyance that nothing there is where I’ve left it. I’ve told so many lies and painted myself into so many corners that when I go back, I am annoyed to find that people have made all sorts of changes without saying anything to me. And in a lot of ways I prefer the town as I have created it and it’s been that way with all of my fictional towns. I stake them out pretty much the way I want them but in doing so it makes it very difficult for me to go back to the same town. I am working on a new novel right now. It’s an upstate New York novel and none of my New York State towns will do, because this time I have just told so many lies and I need a whole new batch of them now. What is going to happen though, is by the time I’m finished if I am very lucky and have five or six more novels in me that are upstate New York novels; people are going to go crazy because I am going to have located them all in the same spot. And when you look at the map you are going to think, my God, these places must be so close to each other.

Q: Even though Tick is a teenager, she seems to know a lot about adult lying. I didn’t know that the physiological traits of lying that she understands are true.

Russo: In Empire Falls, Tick is fourteen, fifteen, I forget. Several of those chapters are told through this fifteen year old girl’s point of few and one of the things she is trying to do since her parents are divorcing is to get some sort of read on adult behavior, which in general she has a pretty dim view of. She is watching particularly her high school principal. And she has come to the conclusion that when people lie, there is always a physiological reaction to lying. Her take on it is, that you have to do something physical with a lie, you either have to expel it with a cough or a bark or you have to swallow it. And she particularly likes the people who swallow lies because that seems to her to be more honest in some way rather than to just say it then just bark it out there into the atmosphere. Now your question was, did I know that that was true and my response is not only did I not know that that was true I am not sure that it is true now. It is just what Tick thinks is true. But I do remember that’s a lot of what is involved in the Tick chapter’s in Empire Falls, just like the Linwood Hart stuff that I have been reading tonight. It is that curious age from eight or so to fifteen when you really begin to study adults and they’re just so weird. And you would just like to come up with a set of rules and regulations whereby you would be able to understand their behavior. That’s what both Lin and Tick are trying to do. I don’t think that is true about lies needing to be expelled or swallowed up, to my knowledge.

Q: How do you write short stories and will we have another selection soon?

Russo: This one was twelve years or so in the making so I don’t think you’ll have another one real soon. Short stories. I am a novelist by inclination, by artistic temperament. One of the things that people have been asking me since I have been on tour with this book of short stories is, "Why would someone who just won a Pulitzer Prize with a big long novel turn to writing short stories as the next project?" And that presupposes that this was the next project when in fact, these are just stories that have been collecting around for the last dozen years or so. It has just taken me that long to have enough of them to create a single, slender volume. Three of them are actually outtakes from the novels. "The Whore’s Child" was originally Sister Ursula, was originally one of Hank Devereaux’s students in Straight Man. "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart," Lin, his climatic baseball catch, he catches a line drive at the end of the story and that was originally something that happened to Miles Roby in Empire Falls. And the story "The Farther You Go" was a story in which that eventually became Straight Man. So there are only really four stories in this slender collection that I had in mind to write as stories. The others are just something that I had left over from the novels. So I suspect that it will be a good long while before you see another short story collection. I wish that weren’t so, but I suspect it.

Q: How do you know when to end a novel and is it hard to let go of characters who have been with you for so long?

Russo: Oh, after you have been through fifteen or sixteen revisions you just can’t wait to see every single one of those people in your rearview mirror (Laughs, as does the audience), no matter how much you have invested in it. The thing is, I revise an enormous amount. It’s absolutely necessary but there is a little bit less fun I think, if you are just talking in terms of fun, because there’s less discovery with each draft that you write. I mean discovery is the fun, that is the real thrill. The early drafts of a novel are just so exhilarating to discover what you don’t know about these people. It’s a constant wonderful high. And that is not to say that you do not discover new things with revision because you do, but the amount that you discover diminishes a little bit with each draft. And by the time you get to draft seventeen there is precious little discovery anymore. You’re down to making the commas work right and so usually by that time I am ready to let go. And really the more important thing is not that it is hard to let go, usually by that stage I have got other characters gnawing at me wanting to be written and a new novel ready to begin. So any kind of feeling that you might have from walking away from people that you love, like Tick or Miles or Max, or any of those people that you have been with for a long time, any feeling of loss that you have is mitigated pretty completely by another whole group of people who will by that point have attracted my attention and are waiting for me to pay attention to them. So it is not just saying goodbye, it is also saying hello to a whole new cast of characters.

Q: Is there a collaboration with Robert Benton in the works and will Paul Newman play Max?

Russo: (Audience laughs) Paul Newman will play Max as it turns out, yes. (Applause) I am actually doing the screenplay right now for HBO. Paul is not only going to play Max but he is an executive producer on the thing so it is very much his project. We should have a director soon. It will not be Benton, who is just finishing up an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. We are working on a project together though. We have written on spec a screenplay of a novel by a man named Scott Phillips and his novel is called The Ice Harvest. It’s a story of a low level mob lawyer in Wichita, Kansas, who is about to leave town and has to wait for his partner to tie up a couple of loose ends. It is the story of Charlie, this low rent mob lawyer. It is the story of his last night in Wichita. It is Christmas Eve and he is going from topless joint to topless joint waiting for the time to pass so that he could get out of town. It is very dark, very noire-ish, very funny I think. That is just being set up right now as a matter of fact. So keep that in the back of your mind, because it will be absolutely wicked I’m sure.

Q: I was born in Gloversville, New York in 1924 and left in January 1925 and when I would tell people where I was born, they would have no clue where that was or what it was like. Now, they have some idea what my birthplace is about.

Russo: The one thing that my daughter Kate has never forgiven me for is the fact she was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania. For exactly those reasons because you have to reveal that to people who for some reason want to know and you have to tell them. Glad to help out.

Q: Do you have any control or literary control of your writing that is sold to Hollywood?

Russo: Hollywood and control do not come together, at least not in my vocabulary. I have never had any control over anything. Sometimes people will ask me what I think just out of curiosity. But my experience has been that once it’s purchased you have just kissed it goodbye. My experience in Hollywood thus far has been really terrific because, despite the fact that I have no control over anything at least as far as I know, I have been fortunate to work with wonderful people. It was Robert Benton who taught me how to write screenplays and that’s the kind of tutoring you just can’t buy. There are people who spend an enormous amount of time and money in film schools and in LA and afterwards can’t even get anybody to read what they’ve written. I kind of walked in through the back door and learned with one of the real masters. Now I have another marketable skill. I have been so fortunate so far to work with really good directors but also with good producers who have never really wanted to do anything all that different in terms of style and tone from what I did in my novels. So I have been fortunate to have movies like Nobody’s Fool and Twilight made out of my work. I have been very fortunate. That is not always the case, I know. One novelist friend had a book optioned and produced and they were shooting it somewhere in the desert in New Mexico. Apparently one of the producers thought it would be kind of nice to bring the author of the novel down and let him meet the crew. So he flew into Albuquerque I guess and drove out for hours into the New Mexico desert where they were shooting the movie. And when word began to go around the set that the author of the novel was there, the actors all came up one by one to meet him and apologize for what they were doing (Audience laughs). One right after another, they were saying, "We’re so sorry, we’re so sorry." And I think that experience of Hollywood is probably more typical than my own.

Q: Do people often misread or misunderstand or add meaning that you did not intend to certain specific points that are trying to be made in the books that you write? And does that bother you?

Russo: It seems to me that it is just part and parcel of writing books that people are going to read what I may not have intended. In a way it’s kind of beside the point, in part because as I continue to write, one of the things that I realize is that, how can I expect readers to always know what I am about when I myself don’t always know? As often as not, I’ll be writing something and I’ll just notice something that I have written and I’ll think, "Boy that’s really good, I didn’t intend that." And then you go back and you emphasize it. The reason that writers revise so much is to convince people that they were smart enough to know what they were doing all along. If people misread or they read into, or they come to conclusions that I would not necessarily come to, that’s fine. Actually the book group phenomenon which is keeping so many of us writers afloat these days financially is really to my way of thinking, kind of an odd phenomenon. I must admit I don’t completely understand it. I am an avid reader. I love to read. It’s one of the great joys of my life but I also thought of it as a kind of intimate experience. After I read a great book, I will very often foist it on somebody, "You’ve got to read this." But I don’t feel any great urge to sit down and talk about it as people in book groups do. I think probably one of the main reasons for that is that I was a teacher for so long and I got so tired of being paid to do exactly that. Now I’m just happy for the intimate experience of the word on the page, just me. The conversation that I enjoy is that—just that writer and me. I don’t need anybody else in there. That is full and sufficient as far as I am concerned. But I don’t want to discourage any of the rest of you from book groups. Thank you so much (Applause).

Richard Russo, BookShow transcript, July 27, 1993

Welcome to the Book Show, produced in cooperation with the Writers Institute in the State University of New York. Your host is Tom Smith.

Smith: Welcome to the Book Show. I’m your host, Tom Smith, of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany, and is part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is the widely acclaimed novelist, Richard Russo. Richard Russo was the author of three compelling and distinctive and highly entertaining novels. The first two, Mohawk and The Risk Pool, were set in the mythical but vividly authentic upstate New York town of Mohawk. They established Russo’s reputation as a superb storyteller with an uncanny and sympathetic ear for ordinary small town speech and character. His new book, Nobody’s Fool, recently published by Random House, will certainly expand Richard Russo’s literary reputation and his readership. Richard Russo, welcome to the Book Show! And congratulations, another triumph. Nobody’s Fool.

Russo: Well, thank you, Tom.

Smith: Richard, you’ve been living in places like Carbondale, Illinois and now Waterville, Maine most of your adult life, but imaginatively, fictively speaking, you’ve never left your home turf, your mythological land in upstate New York. A sense of place is of crucial, I might say of definitive importance to you as a writer, is it not? I mean even more so than perhaps character and plot. Place is the shaping spirit of your novel, is it not?

Russo: It has been up to this point in my career, certainly. Certainly much more than plot, which is something that I hope to arrive at by the end of a book that I’m writing. (Laughs.) But, much more important than that, certainly for me, is place and character. If somebody said to me, what’s more important to your work, character or place, I would probably, rather than trying to choose between them, answer by saying what I really do believe to be true, which is that place and character are inseparable. To try to locate my people in some other place than these mythological towns in upstate New York would be to violate them in some fundamental way, the rhythms of their lives.

Smith: Yes.

Russo: So I wouldn’t even separate the two things, really.

Smith: Right. In your novels, whether it’s Mohawk or now North Bath in Nobody’s Fool, you don’t have just two or three vivid characters, you have platoons of them, and you seem to do loving justice to all of them. I mean, there’s no such thing as a spear-carrier or walk-on character in a Richard Russo novel. And that really does seem to generate out of your profound sense of place. When I read your work, particularly Nobody’s Fool as well as the first two novels, I think of something that a protegee of Yeats, William Butler Yeats, told me some years ago. When this person was a young writer studying with Yeats he asked, "Yeats, you once said that nothing that ever happens to a writer after the age of seventeen really matters. Did you really mean that?" And Yeats said, "Oh no, I was wrong. Much younger. Much younger."

Russo: Yeah.

Smith: Your childhood and adolescent world seems to be just an endless well of creativity.

Russo: And I don’t think I’ve really plumbed its depths entirely yet. People sometimes ask me, because place is so important to my novels, how often, for instance, I get back to upstate New York, how current I’ve kept with the way things are now, since often my novels are placed a decade ago or two decades ago or three decades ago, and in Mohawk even farther back than that. Inherent in the question they’re asking me about how often I get back to my home town of Gloversville, is that they’d like to know whether I’m doing my homework, my research, whether I’m getting back there and taking notes and knowing what’s going on currently, or whether I’m letting myself become uncurrent. The answer to that is that I don’t go back very often, but not because I don’t really want to be current, but because I’ve mythologized the place so much. Upstate New York’s so much a feature of memory and imagination for me that as tools go, at least, I trust those.

Smith: You’ve already done your research.

Russo: Yeah, I did eighteen years of research, when I didn’t know I was doing it.

Smith: Now Richard, in Nobody’s Fool, your new book, you take a scene from Mohawk, a decaying factory town where the townies have sort of been passed by by time, to North Bath, another kind of, if not decaying, at least kind of obsolescent town, where the mineral springs dried up a century ago. Now how did this novel, Nobody’s Fool, located in North Bath, not Mohawk, germinate and grow? It’s a long novel, once again, with lots and lots of characters. How did it happen? How did it evolve?

Russo: Well in terms of the setting I knew almost from the beginning that it couldn’t be a Mohawk novel, although this strikes some people as strange because on the surface at least it looks like we’ve got yet another Russo kind of unlucky town, who's days of prosperity are long past and looking forward to a kind of dubious future. But I knew from the beginning with this novel that the concerns and the stakes were somewhat different. Having written so much about Mohawk, and having brought the details of Mohawk to readers pretty specifically, I knew the Mohawk setting wouldn’t work, because I not only needed an unlucky town, but I needed a very lucky one just up the road.

Smith: Schuyler Springs.

Russo: Yeah. Yeah. Schuyler Springs. Despite the fact that the entire novel takes place in North Bath, it really is the tale of these two towns. In terms of the mythology of these two towns, this new novel, Nobody’s Fool, strikes me as somewhat more philosophical and a little bit less sociological. The people in North Bath, for the last two hundred years, have had leisure to contemplate their own bad luck, to think about what it means that their prosperity, their luck, literally ran dry in this town when the resort collapsed after the springs dried out and the old Grand Souci hotel half burned down. I mean that’s bad enough to have your luck turn dry, but it’s even worse to be able to see where that trickle has gone. And it’s gone five-six-seven miles up the road to Schuyler Springs, where the mineral springs continue to bubble merrily despite the fact that they come from the same fault line. And where their neighbors, these close neighbors of North Bath in Schuyler Springs, have, for the past two hundred years, really benefited from their demise in North Bath. So, they not only get to be unlucky themselves, but they get to see right where the luck has gone and they get to see it every day.

Smith: Yes, let’s follow that up in just a minute. But Richard, first let me interrupt our conversation to inform our listeners that our guest today is novelist Richard Russo, author of three acclaimed novels, the last of which, the current novel, Nobody’s Fool, was just published recently by Random House. Richard, one of the many wonderful things about North Bath, down the road from the much more successful and flourishing Schuyler Springs, is the fact that there’s a glimmer of hope that a new theme park, named The Ultimate Escape, will come to town. Its’ going to be right beside the graveyard, which I think is a great joke and a metaphor, a philosophical metaphor, for perhaps your whole book. Did you come upon that in the latter part of writing your novel, or was it there right from the beginning? I mean it just seems such a wonderful metaphor—The Ultimate Escape right beside the graveyard.

Russo: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’m glad you didn’t think of that as too precious. I wondered about it. It seemed to me to be perfect, and my fear of course was that anything that’s perfect like that can be too perfect. People will view it as precious. I’m trying to remember exactly at what point in the writing of the novel I decided upon that. I think it was fairly early. But this was a novel that took five years in the writing. It took me far longer to write this novel than any other, either of the other novels. Now, unfortunately, when I look back on that five year period of time that I was at work on this book and try to remember specifically when certain revelations came to me, I’m a little bit foggy about the genesis of that detail. But I remember that it was there, The Ultimate Escape, the theme park, was there very near the beginning of my thoughts about this book, because it was part of that whole dynamic, of luck and the possibility of luck returning to North Bath. The business about the juxtaposition to the cemetery, however, I’m trying to remember exactly when that occurred to me as the perfect metaphor for our hopes and dreams. I can’t remember. That may have been a little bit later in the process of things.

Smith: Well that juxtaposition seems to be a reflection of the energy of the novel because even though, like Mohawk, North Bath is decaying and passe in many, many respects, it has this glimmer of hope. And Nobody’s Fool, in general, even though it has it’s pathos and defeat, it has this glimmer of hope. Of course I think every reader will expect that The Ultimate Escape will not happen, and will not be built outside of town. But it’s still a very funny book. In fact I’d almost say it’s a comedy about a community of losers, or what a lot of people would think of as a community of losers. And I think that paradox is really one of the beautiful things about the book. It really is very funny and also upbeat, as is the main character, Sully.

Russo: Yeah. Well it’s the old thing that people always say about comedy or at least a certain kind of comedy. And it makes us nervous, I think. It continues to make us nervous in ways that it probably shouldn’t. The most cursory reading of the great comic masterpiece of American literature, Huckleberry Finn, reveals that the business of laughter is pretty necessary and pretty dangerous stuff in the sense that we recognize what the foundations of laughter are. And they are so often pain, and so often despair. Huck and Jim’s journey down the river is a journey into ignorance, and a journey into violence, and a journey into a much, much darker world than the world that they left with Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly. We understand that as we go deeper and deeper in this journey down the river that things are going to get darker and darker and more serious, and we feel, I think, at times, quite guilty about having such a damn fine time about it. We are really laughing ourselves into quite a state and realizing that some of the most serious themes in American literature—of racism and ignorance and violence—that are so ingrained in the American character, are being peeled away for us to look at. What does it mean that we laugh?

Smith: Yes. Your characters, and I’m not just talking about Sully, but many characters in this book, male and female, have a very quick tongue. They’re very funny, they’re putting each other down, and they’re sort of entertaining themselves and each other, whether it’s in Hattie’s lunchroom or the White Horse Tavern or the off-track betting parlor. These are three major locations of Sully’s world. But Sully himself, your central character of the book, is a sixty-year-old, more or less laid off construction worker who does day labor off the books. He’s a drinker, a gambler. He has been a negligent father, and he has a bad knee. But he’s a marvelous character. Also, Richard, this is another one of your great father and son relationships. Sully’s own father, Big Jim Sullivan, is safely dead, but boy he’s very much alive in his son, Donald Sullivan’s imagination. So he’s haunted, but he’s upbeat. Was that character always there from the beginning of your story? Did you know that he was going to be the focal character?

Russo: You mean Sully? Or Big Jim?

Smith: Well, Sully with Big Jim. And of course Sully has his own son, Peter, who’s a major character we’ll talk about later.

Russo: And a grandson to boot.

Smith: The grandson is quite a character, too.

Russo: We do have four generations of Sullivans to look at. Sully was really the heart and soul of the novel right from the beginning. He was born, I think, as you might expect in some ways, of the character in the previous novel—Sam Hall. Whenever you write a novel—for me about halfway through that novel—you realize that the choices you’ve made have forced doors to swing shut behind you. In a book like the Risk Pool, for instance, which is a first-person point of view, in which a father-son relationship is being investigated through the eyes of the son, the entire narrative is coming through the eyes of the son, and through much of the book the son is too young to understand his father. About halfway through writing a book like that, when you can almost hear the doors swinging shut behind you, you sense the options that are no longer available to you because of the point of view you’ve chosen. You begin to see, well, what if I had written this book another way? What if since the boy can’t understand the man, what if we had access to the man? What if we had a little bit more direct access to and input into the man’s feelings instead of the son’s feelings? I realized about halfway through writing the Risk Pool that there was another character now, the character of Sully, who was beginning to take shape in the outer regions of my imagination. He was whispering to me, yeah, Ned is a good storyteller here, but he really doesn’t understand the old man. And of course he couldn’t. And really from that moment about halfway through the Risk Pool, Donald Sullivan, another character, was beginning to speak to me about a different point of view that would allow me access to him somewhat more directly.

Smith: Yes. And so that’s probably why when you did write Nobody’s Fool, you went from the first person to the third person omniscient narration.

Russo: Right. Right.

Smith: Now, at some point did you not have Sully, Donald Sullivan, as the first person narrator and then abandon it for some of the reasons that you just said?

Russo: Yeah, as a matter of fact, one of the reasons that this book took me five years to write was that I made just about as bad a mistake as a writer can make in the early drafts, giving another first-person narrative but this time from the point of view of the father in the story. I gave a first-person point of view from Sully’s perspective and it was a terrible mistake because, number one, it diminished the vitality of the other characters in this book. Miss Barrow, who was so important in the novel, virtually wasn’t there.

Smith: The old landlady and schoolteacher.

Russo: Right. Right. She’s kind of the moral center of the book in many respects.

Smith: And truly begins and end the novel.

Russo: Yeah.

Smith: Also it allows you to explore not only Peter and Big Jim, but also Vera, Sully’s ex-wife. Ruth, his longtime married mistress. Rub, his not very bright best friend. Carl Roebuck. Toby Roebuck. On and on. Wirf, his one-legged alcoholic Jewish lawyer from Albany. I mean, it’s an enormous cast of characters. You can give loving attention to all of them because it’s nobody’s novel in that sense.

Russo: Yeah. Yeah.

Smith: Let me say once again that I’m talking with novelist Richard Russo about his new book, his third novel, Nobody’s Fool, recently published by Random House. Richard, not only a sense of place, but also social class is an important factor in your fiction. I think every reader of your novels has this really very distinct vivid sense that you have working class sympathy, but without sentimentality or condescension. I mean, here you have these somewhat decaying communities, but yet they seem to be the centers of energy, of human life. Is there something about social class, or perhaps our neglect of it in our fiction, in our culture, that you feel is a great omission? There’s a lot to be learned from that world.

Russo: Yeah. I think class has been sadly neglected in the fiction of the last twenty years, certainly. You go back to the proletariat novels of earlier in the century and they feel dated in some way—some of them, at least. What’s happened, I think, is that the whole issue of social class has been taken up by the great minority writers and used in connection with issues of race. But you don’t see it as much any more as I would like to. I mean it’s as if a whole generation of writers has grown up and their parents have said to them, let’s not talk about money, it’s in bad taste. (Laughs.) And they have heeded their parents’ advice only too well. I think that’s really unfortunate. Of course so many of my literary heroes have been writers of class, where money and personal economy have been so central. Some of the most important books in my life are books like Great Expectations—probably the great novel about class—but also all the rest of the Dickens canon. Dickens, having grown up poor and not always having enough to eat, and certainly not enough money, never outgrew his worry on that score. Nor did he ever outgrow the fundamental knowledge about the way a lack of money can dictate who we are, can make us small, can sometimes make us generous. But certainly makes us who we are.

Smith: You, like Dickens, work with a very broad canvas, focusing sometimes on what other people would say are very little lives and yet you transform them, in this case working class small time Americans, into very vivid and energetic, unforgettable characters. I think that’s really a great tribute to your fiction.

Russo: Yeah. No lives are little if you’re living them.

Smith: That’s right. No lives are little if you’re living them. Richard, we’ve almost run out of time and there are a lot of themes in the book, and characters, I would like to explore. Free will for instance. And fate. It is a very philosophical novel in that sense, too. But before we have to sign off, how about future fictional worlds? Are you going back to Mohawk? Or back to North Bath? Or someplace else in the next book or two?

Russo: Well, I’m keeping my visas current, and my passport as well. I have actually a couple of novels. I’m a couple hundred pages into a novel which will not be either a Mohawk or a North Bath novel. I don’t think I’m finished with the characters in Nobody’s Fool and I’ve got another novel which I think may be a Mohawk novel that really has been tugging at me for awhile, although it’s going to be much more contemporary, I think. So, like Faulkner, I want to be free to revisit any of my old haunts at the drop of a hat.

Smith: Well, we all hope and count on the fact that you will. So please come back to your mythological turf here in every sense, and give us more of these superb stories and wonderful characters. Thank you, Richard Russo.

Russo: Thank you, Tom.

Smith: This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on the Book Show.

Brian Melman was a graduate assistant at the NYS Writers Institute, 2001-2002.

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Richard Russo

Richard Russo, Reading October 19, 2001
Introduction by Edward Schwarzschild

Edward Schwarzschild: I’m excited to be introducing today’s guest, Richard Russo. One story I’ve come across about Richard Russo is that a few years back, not all that long ago he was in Graduate school working on a Ph.D. in English at the University of Arizona. His Doctoral dissertation was on the early American novelist Charles Brockden-Brown. I don’t want to disparage Brockden-Brown’s work. He’s the author of such classics as Wieland. There is certainly much of interest in books like that. In Wieland, for instance, there is a father who dies, apparently of spontaneous combustion. There’s also an incredibly wily ventriloquist who lurks around formenting evil from the shadows. Yet it’s still not surprising to me that Richard Russo one day looked up from his research long enough to realize that the graduate students in creative writing were having a lot more fun than he was. It seems at that point we lost a Charles Brockden-Brown scholar, but gained a novelist. That’s a career change that we should all be thankful for. It’s a career change that has given us five wonderful novels: Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and most recently, Empire Falls. Russo has also been working in Hollywood lately on the screen adaptation of Nobody’s Fool and on the screenplay for another Paul Neuman film, Twilight. The adaptation of Nobody’s Fool was nominated for an Oscar. His work has been celebrated as brilliant, comic, wise, full of passion, haunting power, and insidious charm. His novels have all of that and more. Russo himself is probably the most incisive reader of his work and he got to it’s center, I think, when he said, "I want that which is hilarious and that which is heartbreaking to occupy the same territory, because I think they very often occupy the same territory in life as much as we try to separate them." Russo escaped the world of Brockden-Brown, but he has done his time in academia. He was most recently a professor at Colby College. He definitely knows the world of colleges and universities as the laugh out loud and funny Straight Man makes abundantly clear. If you haven’t read that book, you have a treat in store for you. More than that though, Russo seems to have a keen understanding and appreciation of the act of learning. In a recent commencement address, he told the graduates that education is like, "entering a witness protection program. You come out a different person with a different identity and that’s all part of the American dream." Much the same can be said about the experience of reading a Russo novel, but I would change the word different to better. We come away from places like Mohawk, and Railton, and Empire Falls as better people. With each novel we are offered a few hundred pages of Russo’s protection. We get time to spend with the likes of Miles and Max, Tick and Janine, and the Silverfox, and we can’t help but emerge from their world as fuller, wiser, and more hopeful human beings. In the end, what strikes me as most hopeful in Russo’s world is how individuals can be saved by being known, by letting themselves be known, and by trying with all their hearts to know others. That’s not to say the dreams aren’t often dashed, as Russo shows even the simplest ones are extremely difficult to achieve. What we have can be taken away, what we desire can be denied us over and over again. Miles learns this and more in Empire Falls, but he also learns how he can be saved and made strong by someone who knows us. Someone who can call our name with love and compassion and remind us where we are. Maybe that’s a Brockden-Brown legacy, some form of ventriloquism not at all evil. Richard Russo knows the voices that we need to hear in this world, and we’re incredibly fortunate that he continues to share his talent and skill with us. I’m pleased to introduce Richard Russo.

Richard Russo: Thank you. The truly chilling Charles Brockden-Brown moment in my life was at an MLA convention. I had gone to a job interview. I believe I had perhaps one job interview that year, not more than two. I never had more than two in a year. I was just finished with my Ph.D. and was interviewing at one of the California colleges and I don’t think I realized that at least two of the MLA charter flights would have had to have crashed on the way home in order for me to get this job. At any rate, I was sitting across the room from a senior professor who said he had read one of the chapters of my dissertation and said, "Well, if you get this job we want you to know that you will be our man on Charles Brockden Brown." That’s how writers are born.


In the fall of Miles Ruby’s junior year, his father flush with summer house painting money, bought a second hand Mercury Cougar. The idea being that Miles would soon be old enough to get his license. By Thanksgiving, however, Max himself had received three speeding tickets and run over a cat. . . .

Question and Answer Period

Audience: What is the difference between mill towns in upstate New York and mill towns in Maine?

Russo: Precious little. One of the things that I’ve noted in living in Maine is that towns like Empire Falls are everywhere. People are always asking me where is Empire Falls and I just say, pick a town. Pick a town in Maine that’s inland thirty miles anywhere, and you’d have a pretty good model for Empire Falls. The thing that’s a little bit different I think between mill towns in the Mohawk Valley region that I have written about in some length, and also in central Pennsylvania and a lot of mill towns in Maine is that a lot of the mill towns in Maine are geographically closer to prosperity than some of the towns in, for instance, the Mohawk Valley region and in Central Pennsylvania, where I placed Railton. Maine has a good deal of wealth, but it’s along a very narrow strip that extends about five miles, at the most, inland from the coast all the way up. Once you get much farther inland than that you can just see the economy begin to die. People in those mill towns in Maine seem to be aware that prosperity is so close. People who live in those towns are able to drive a half hour and see people from Massachusetts and Connecticut and people with wonderful summer homes up and down the coast of Maine, so it’s all very present. In my novel, Nobody’s Fool, I had a situation in which I had a town like Ballston Spa and a town like Saratoga Springs to contrast the unlucky town with the lucky town. That’s very much the situation in Maine. There’s a lot of poverty there, but it’s really cheek by jowl with a lot of prosperity. It’s just all connected to the water in some way.

Audience: Questioner asks about the influences of Russo’s youth and Catholic upbringing.

Russo: I’m denying it all. (Laughs.) Sacred Heart Church has a very deep connection to my psyche. I was an altar boy there for so many years, it is still in some ways in my mind, THE CHURCH. When I write about Catholicism as I do from time to time, even in this most recent book, Empire Falls, that’s kind of always the church that’s in the back of my mind, I suppose. Sometimes I’ll describe it in a way, like I did in The Risk Pool, that’s fairly close to Sacred Heart church and sometimes as in Empire Falls, I’ll change the physical attributes of it but very often in my mind that’s kind of what I’m thinking about. Sometimes, in this book for instance, in Empire Falls, the town of Empire Falls is kind of rescued at least in a small way at the end of the novel. I don’t think I’m ruining anything for any of you who haven’t read this book yet by saying there’s a kind of renaissance at the end of the book that takes place in the town, a kind of rescue that’s effected. I had a chance to make use of things that I’ve just seen happen at various other places. A mill gets converted into a brew pub. A church, Saint Catherine’s in Empire Falls, gets converted into a series of condos. I’ve seen those things happening so there are actual things that a writer who’s keeping his eyes open just sees and stores and at some point or other finds use for.

Audience: Questioner asks about Russo’s ability to move between the cultures of small town America and the intellectual worlds of universities and cities.

Russo: No, with great difficulty actually. I think I still live in a small town. I still love small towns. For a while when I was in college and I was returning home to Gloversville, New York, for the summer, I would usually be working with my father in one way or another, sometimes doing road constructions, sometimes tending bar, whatever it was to do. I became most aware then of something like the witness protection program. I became very aware of living in both worlds and ironically really not belonging to either. When I went off to school I learned that my language had to change. The language of the classroom was not the same as the language of Nick’s Tavern in downtown Gloversville. I would have to change my language in order to speak to people, and of course when you change your language you change, to a certain extent, your identity. It’s not just a tool, it changes who you are to a degree. What I wouldn’t have suspected at the time was that the opposite was also true. After spending a year in the academy, learning how to talk the way people talk in the academy, then to return home to do the kinds of work that I was doing in the summer, required me to once again learn a different language, because the language that I was speaking at the University of Arizona would have been, and was, greeted with great derision in the bars and on the roads. What I had a deep sense of was being a hypocrite in both worlds, and of really belonging to neither. It has, however, been the best thing that could have happened to me as a writer because these are the people—of my summer employment—these are the people who continue to challenge my imagination and to be the people that I care most about. Learning to live in both worlds has allowed me to enter that one, I think, ultimately a little bit more deeply so the transition was difficult for a while but certainly worth it, at least to my way of thinking. I keep coming back to it.

Audience: It seems of all of your books that you had the most fun writing Straight Man. Is that right?

Russo: I had a ball. I hope you can tell from reading that book. That’s the book of mine that was most a lark. I just had a wonderful time from start to finish writing that book. It has some dark undercurrents to it, but it’s a book that’s at least as much about middle age as it is about the academy. I did have a ball. I had labored in the academy for a long time and I had lots of stories. I’ve used maybe five percent of my academic stories in that novel. What was really surprising about it was the reaction to it. What I thought when I was writing that book, was that I was burning bridges. In a strange way that once this book came out I would never again be welcome at any university campus anywhere. Immediately after it was published I started getting invitations, more invitations than I had ever had before, to speak in colleges and universities. I discovered that it wasn’t even people in other departments that wanted to bring me there to make fun of the English Department, but actually it was the English Department, in most cases, that wanted me to come and speak to them. In some way I must have validated some experience or some frustration or something. It’s a book that has found a home in the academy. The only thing I can say is that almost everybody in every English Department that I have ever visited since that book came out has told me how much they loved the book and how much they recognize their colleagues in it. I’ve never heard anyone say yet that they recognized themselves.

Audience: . . . comment on teenagers, referring to Miles’ daughter, Tick, in Empire Falls.

Russo: I’m so sorry. It’s a tough age. Thank you. The only thing I can say is that you do get through it somehow. I used shamelessly both of my daughters’ high school experiences, at least as a jumping off point. My daughter Kate, as a matter of fact, who is now a college sophomore, for a brief time was coming home from high school every night unhappy. My daughter Emily had a wonderful high school experience with great friends. I knew Katey was unhappy and she would come home and I was asking her what’s going on in school and she would be reluctant to say much about it. She started talking to me one night about this one girl in her class. After dinner I said, "Come on," and we went into the den where I write and I said, "What was that one sentence you told me about this girl?" She told me something and I typed it out and then I started asking her questions. In about fifteen minutes we had a short paragraph about this girl. The next night, after dinner, we did the same thing. I said, "Let’s go in and tell a couple of more lies about this character," who ultimately turned out to be Candace in Empire Falls. So we went back and wrote a little more and added a little dialogue, got a little bit of a scene going. This went on for about a week with me saying let’s go in and about the second week she was saying lets go in and write a little bit about Candace. For quite a while we continued to just write and sometimes we would use what had happened that day and sometimes we would invent something that seemed to fit Candace’s character. It went on for a long time. She survived. That’s the end of that story. Sooner or later you look up and they’re in college. Generally that’s a better thing.

Audience: Questioner asks if he models some of his characters on himself, or people he knows, or if they are original creations.

Russo: I don’t think there’s any such thing as an original creation. What people have said, which I think is true, if you start at the beginning of most of my books, each of them has had at least one kind of rogue male in there starting off—Dallas Younger in Mohawk, and Sam in The Risk Pool, and Sully in Nobody’s Fool. I think Straight Man actually skips that, but I think Max is a little bit older and a little bit less charming, although he’s a pretty charming character. Some of those earlier freedom loving rogue males that have found their way in one fashion or another into Russo fiction derive from a lot of things from my own personal experiences and we’ll leave it at that.

Audience: Questioner asks about how Russo begins a work.

Russo: I will sometimes have a vague notion of where I might be headed. Since I’m as often wrong as often as I’m right, especially at the beginning I think that my books tend to be long. I’m not smart enough to figure them out whole so I just kind of try to entertain myself as I’m writing it. I like to write books the same way that I read them in order to find out what’s going to happen. As long as the characters are entertaining me I try to follow their lead as much as possible. This novel, for instance, the first chapter of this novel didn’t get written until I was about two thirds of the way through the book. That is, the prologue in which C. B. Whiting decides to go to war with God. That was written very late and it was only when I wrote that chapter, the beginning chapter that it suddenly dawned on me where I might be heading at the end. So that was about two thirds of the way through the book where I discovered both my beginning and my ending. That’s not atypical for me at all. John Irving always says, "What kind of an idiot would begin a long journey without knowing where he was headed." John Irving probably is capable of visioning his novels whole before he writes the first word, but not I.

Audience: Questioner asks for advice on raising a teenage child and about Russo’s development as a writer.

Russo: We have very good friends of ours who come to ask us advice because they have younger children, like what did you do, how did you handle this, and all of that. We say we don’t remember. It was just too awful, we’ve repressed it! You assume something not in evidence, you ask how have I gotten better as a writer. I’m not sure that I have. One of the things, I’d like to think is that I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. This book, um, The Risk Pool still has a real place in my heart. It was written when my father was dying and it has a deep emotional connection to me. Still. This book does, too. Partly because of things we’ve been talking about and this book is born of a father’s fear and will always be a book in which I think of my daughters at a certain time in my life so I’ve got a real rich emotional connection to it. But, unlike The Risk Pool, this is a book that strikes me as one with a much larger social context for the events to take place within. It’s a novel that deals with several different generations of a couple of families. The past is as important as the present. There was an awful lot more research for it because there was an awful lot more that I didn’t know that I had to know. I had to read a lot of geology about rivers and how their courses might be altered and that sort of thing. There was just a lot that I didn’t know. This book seems to me to be probably a book that I wouldn’t have known how to write earlier because it’s just in some way bigger than I would have known how to tackle earlier. So maybe that means that something has happened throughout the course of that. There’s a wonderful book about art that has most of what you need to know about art in it—The Horse’s Mouth [by Joyce Cary, 1999] about a painter named Gully Jimson, who at the beginning of the book was painting wonderful paintings that are hanging on people’s walls. By the end of the book he’s a very old man. He’s contemplating the sides of battleships for his canvases. I feel a little bit like Gully at times because it feels to me like my books are just getting bigger.

Audience: Questioner asks about films made from Russo’s books.

Russo: Actually we are in negotiations right now with Paramount to do Empire Falls, and I think Robert Benton is in negotiations to direct. Benton and I have become very good friends. We did Nobody’s Fool together of course, and Twilight also together and it’s been some years now where we’ve been looking for another project to do together. We have this and one other that we’re going to be working on together. Not many writers have been as fortunate as I have. As a matter of fact, there’s one other writer in the room who’s been pretty fortunate too. But then it occurred to me, Mr. Kennedy, that I don’t know how fortunate you feel about Ironweed. I liked it. Russell Banks, I think has been fortunate. For the most part there are very few writers who have been treated any where near as well as I have with that movie of Nobody’s Fool. I thought it was just marvelous.

Audience: Questioner asks about the future of small towns in a time of "gentrification."

Russo: The gentleman asking the question lives in a town very much like the towns I write about. It is in danger of being taken over, if it hasn’t been taken over already, by wealth in its more ostentatious forms of trophy houses, etc. Would I consider writing about such a phenomenon? The quick answer is yes. People always talk about me as a writer of place. What I am more than anything else is a writer of class. Really that’s what you’re talking about there. So in one fashion or other I will be up your way soon.

Audience: Questioner asks about the character David in Empire Falls.

Russo: Several people have asked me that and the quick answer to that I think is no. Readers tend to think about David’s parentage because the timing is such that you wonder who David’s father might actually be. If there’s any payoff to that in the novel it’s that phone call between Miles and his father in which Miles says to him he’s, "pretty confident for a man who’s gone all the time." Max says to him, "Is Tick yours?" Miles knows that it is so the same thing applies to Max, he knows. David is his son. I agree with you the timing is such that is seems almost an invitation to wonder if he might be Charlie Whiting’s son. That’s probably regrettable actually. I regret it as I discuss it.

Audience: Questioner asks about books and other authors that have influenced Russo.

Russo: The most important books for me before I was a writer, that I now realize as a kind of mid-career writer, were first and foremost, Dickens, because of those great big canvases and the importance that he placed on minor characters. That influence in my work is pretty clear. Then that group of 20th century realists and 19th century realists. Twain is very important to me for the way he undermines conventional morality. It’s very important to me. Certainly in Huck Finn. Steinbeck is important to me. It was Cannery Row that taught me how to write from an omniscient point of view, which is now my kind of default mode in writing a novel. Willa Cather and of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American dreams. It’s something that was formative in my reading and finds it’s way into my writing. Hemingway too, but only less so. But those are the big guys.

Audience: Questioner asks how Russo came to find his subject and theme.

Russo: I would rephrase the question and just tell you a short story. The first novel that I wrote, which was blessedly unpublished, was a story that was set in Tucson, Arizona where I was doing my MFA and Ph.D. work at the time. It was set in Tucson in the present and it was about a fairly elderly woman. I gave it to my mentor to read and what he said to me was exactly what I did not want to hear. He said, "There was really only one brief, about forty page section, of this novel that really came to life. It was a flashback that was told about this mill town in upstate New York." The rest of it he said was written about Tucson, "like you were a tourist there." Which, of course, I was. He said the woman’s life was really interesting back when she was living in this other place. That’s where the novel really was. He was right because that town was Mohawk and that character was Ann Grouse as a younger woman. I think what those books did was to tell me in some really fundamental way who I am as an artist. Which may or may not have anything to do with coming to terms with growing up in Gloversville. Thank you all so much. Thank you.

Florence Hunt is a graduate assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.

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Richard Russo
See also: Richard Russo, by Kerry Morris
Richard Russo, by John Rowen for the Sunday Gazette

Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman is a writer's writer. She obviously loves words, language, books and the impossible choices that face each writer: should I describe my character or not; give explanations; what should happen – is it my desire for goals and direction that makes me compose a plot? am I imposing too many limits when I indicate only two or three influences? "As writers our desires and our limits enter our stories, dressed up as events and characters; as readers, through our desires and limits, we take up these events and characters, or their lack, and make them ours, or don't. The most bedeviling question for writers, I think, is whether any of us can turn our unconscious and conscious desires and our historically and psychologically determined limits, our necessities, into virtues, and whether our vices can become our books' virtues" ("Telling Tales" The Broad Picture 144).

Whether she is writing short fiction – This Is Not It (2002), The Madame Realism Complex (1992) – or novels – No Lease On Life (1998), Cast in Doubt (1992), Motion Sickness (1991), Absence Makes the Heart (1990), Haunted Houses (1987) – essays – The Broad Picture (1997) or biography – Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co. (1999), The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-1967 (1995), Lynne Tillman's prose is engaging, intelligent, and playful. In her short stories, she often teases the reader as much as her characters or subject matter. That is, language, structure, and the text's relationship to the reader are concerns in her stories, as well as what happens to her characters.

Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co. (1999)

Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co. (1999) is written in the first person with the interviewee identified, so the effect is as if each person is speaking directly to the reader. Tillman wrote the Introduction, which includes a brief history of publishing, in her voice. (The Preface is by Woody Allen.) In her Introduction, her fascination with books comes through:

The genesis of bookstores and of writers, editors, and readers is shared. Why people love books, why they write or publish them, why they read or sell them spring from related interests, needs and desires. Books & Co. was a nexus for literary achievements and hopes, for readerly proclivities, for human interactions – from a child's love of writing to a novelist's debut, a chance encounter to a love affair, from a casual comment to a book deal, a book's indelible effect on a reader to a memorial reading for its author.

Visiting bookstores, poring over shelves and through books, may turn into a daily or weekly ritual, a sacred moment in the secular world. Book loving and bookstore loving may be obsessions, the book a fetishized object. If bookstores hold mystery fascination, allure, and romance, it's because they carry the love object – the book – and are safe havens for its adoration or, at least, its discussion. (xvii-xviii)

Books & Co. was a "literary icon" for nearly two decades, forced out of its space over a rent dispute with the Whitney Museum. Tillman interviewed Jeanette Watson primarily, for the biography, but also the many others who read at, worked at, or were involved with Books & Co., including Steven Aronson, Susan Sontag, Brendan Gill, Amy Hemple, and Fran Lebowitz. Besides information from and about the literati and glitterati that frequented the store, the book includes unexpected anecdotes, such as when "one gentleman sniffs panties from a Valentine's Day display, a shoplifter stuffs art books down his pants, [and when] a Buddhist spiritualist arrives for his reading by stretch limo. … Not just an elegy, this quote-stuffed text vividly depicts America's literary culture as fostered by its precious but endangered independent booksellers" (Kirkus).

No Lease on Life (1998)

A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, No Lease on Life (1998) begins with, and is interspersed with really, really, really bad jokes. As Nikki Dillon puts it, "From start to finish the novel traverses anarchic territory – a dangerous, hilariously funny realm which exists beyond the margins of good manners and good taste. [These] Jokes [are]… like a rude remark blurted out, unexpectedly at a cocktail party. Entertaining in themselves, the jokes accentuate the kinetic, jaunty rhythm of Tillman's writing" (http://www.altx.com/ebr/reviews.rev8/r8dillon.htm). The jokes – old, sick, familiar ones we've all groaned over before – pop-up consistently, yet they do not distract from the flow of Elizabeth's ruminations. Perhaps this is because Tillman keeps Elizabeth's subjects coming thick and fast, and because Elizabeth's obsessions are as familiar to us as are the crummy jokes. Both the jokes and the anxiety are old relatives, a part of us or our history that we groan at and chuckle at simultaneously. One anxiety of Elizabeth's is how her super never throws anything away:

Maybe Hector [the super] understood this and didn't even try. He collected instead. If it can't be cleaned, it can be collected.

Anyone can collect anything, any dumb trinket is collectible. Put enough of them together and you'll get money for the collection. Some other moron will give you money because you collected hotel matchbooks, coasters, or autographs from movie stars who'd spit on you if they could.

Empty feelings were temporarily negated by being smothered and surrounded by thousands of the same kind of thing, mounting and mounted. People start collecting on a whim. It just happened, they say. They just started. They started with one baseball card, porcelain cupid, button, postcard, and then it took over their lives, consumed them. They never know why. They say, I thought I'd get another one, then I wanted another one, and suddenly, I wanted this one, and then I wanted all of them. I had to have the whole set, all of them. The stuff's all around them, in boxes or cartons, or displayed on shelves. It fills their houses and their lives, the irresistible, the harmless. Their impulses are everywhere. The stuff that isn't collectible collects inside them, silently, cunningly.

What she collected kept her from sleeping. Elizabeth shook herself. She didn't want to go under.

Why do WASP's like taking planes?

For the food.

Two men strolled along the street, talking casually. To them everything was cool. They were in love, they were inviolable. On the next corner they could be murdered by a moron. She'd probably be murdered. Her life would come to its pathetic statistical end, and she wouldn't have murdered anyone, wouldn't know the thrill.

Mindless, heartless, she was on the edge. She was close to the bliss of being unconscious, bodiless. She rubbed her eyes. (80-1)

We exist in Elizabeth's head and Elizabeth thinks of a lot of different things – her super's obsession with collecting things; idiots who throw trash cans in the early morning; supers who won't keep up the building; killing and/or fucking the landlord across the street; her neighbors doing time; laundry; etc. Elizabeth wants to change some things and some people, but not necessarily the things or people she has influence over. At one point she thinks that her boyfriend thinks she is stupid. She's underemployed doing part-time proofing. Yet she doesn't focus on getting a new job or boyfriend, but instead focuses on her apartment building, where the super has never cleaned the floors, put in lights, or put a lock on the entry door. When the landlord raises the rent, she writes to the city, providing a detailed collection of information about the condition of the building that she and another tenant have painstakingly obtained. This defeats the intended rent increase, but there is still no lock on the front door. Therefore, there are still junkies shooting up and people relieving themselves in the hallway. The success has been to maintain the status quo.

Elizabeth's stream-of-consciousness contains commonplace anxiousness, self-doubt, fantasies, memories and good will, all things that many people experience. Her stream-of-consciousness also makes clear that her obsession over the super's obsessive collecting and non-action is an obsession of collecting, as well. She sees his collecting as a way to protect himself; her obsessions about the building and immediate neighborhood are her protection from looking at what she can change. And as a proofreader, correcting is her job. When her super gets fired, Elizabeth's internal world is altered. It is this evening that she is able to fight the "morons" and "crusties" disturbing her sleep, though not in the manner she's fantasized. "Tillman is a talented writer who demonstrates her wit, superb observational skill, realism of representation, and verbal eloquence by telling a story that is almost a nonstory," states Janet St. John of Booklist. "No Lease On Life is more an urban vignette or meditation on the realness and the ridiculousness of daily living. Yet again, Tillman tackles issues on her terms, freshly reshaping traditional literary forms as she goes" (http://www.ala.org/booklist/v94/adult/oc1/31tillma.html).

The Madame Realism Complex (1992)

The Broad Picture (1997)

The Madame Realism Complex (1992) is listed as "fiction" in Tillman's resume but the boundaries between fiction and essay are sometimes quite blurry in this collection. As Tillman puts it, "Different forms allow you to do different things. Sometimes I try to confound the two forms. I have a character, Madame Realism, and I've written several essays, some of which appear in The Broad Picture (1997), in which she goes to art shows, so that I'm using a fictive voice to write art reviews. It's one way of dealing with the problem of Truth, which many of the essays deal with in one way or another…" (http://beatrice.com/interviews/tillman/). Tillman's essays are challenging, engaging, and quick-witted. They dart around to examine multiple angles of each subject. Topics in these two collections include racism, memory, representation, what writing does, death of a father, art, immigration or "hyphenated Americans," and stories:

Thinking about narratives and why I decide or choose, if I'm really choosing, to write one kind rather than another is like thinking the unthinkable. It's impossible: I'm already thinking in stories. One thinks in stories, thinking is a story; "stories are a way to think," I wrote in a story. Narratives are so deeply embedded in how we think and what we think, what we know and how we know it, and in who we are – which narratives about ourselves do we accept as valid and meaningful? do we choose them? how do we choose them? – it's hard to get hold of what stories are. It's hard to see how they function because they are always functioning.

I like it that a floor in a building is called a "story." Architects talk about a building's event, a moment of place in the structure where something happens. ("Telling Tales" The Broad Picture 135)

In addition to writing about narration, Tillman also considers language, what words and language can do, how they can affect a writer, particularly a woman writer:

One goes into the room – but the resources of the English language would be much put to the stretch, and whole flights of words would need to wing their way illegitimately into existence before a woman could say what happens when she goes into a room.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

"Whole flights of words would need to wing their way illegitimately" astonishes me – how accurate Woolf is about the unspeakable, the inadmissible, what cannot be said or has not been written. My emphasis, for this essay, would be on "illegitimately." It seems an existential fact of minority life that one feels illegitimate, is made to feel illegitimate. Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska remarks that in a society hostile to women – and necessarily women writers – women are made to feel like freaks. "Isn't that a very refined, a very sophisticated form of repression?" Perhaps I was writing Haunted Houses "against" being a freak, at the same time I knew – and know – myself to be one, sitting there (here) writing. ("Critical Fictions/Critical Self" The Broad Picture 22)

With the novel Haunted Houses in mind, Small Press Traffic Executive Director Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson states that Tillman has "done some of the most amazing postwar written investigations into what it means to be a girl, and an American, among many many other things, and we love her for it" (http://www.sptraffic.org/html/events/oct.html). Tillman never seems to be doing just one thing at once. Her writing creates multiples: it refracts light or ideas or connections, it turns the kaleidoscope wheel on structure. This is well-exampled in her latest collection, due out in November 2002, This Is Not It.

This Is Not It: Stories (2002)

This Is Not It: Stories is stories and art; it is storyart or stor-art-y, a kind of cross-commenting, or elaboration, between visual art and fiction, though the stories can stand alone without the images. "Usually the stories came about, " says Tillman, "because various artists asked me to write for their catalogues or artist books or limited edition books (40 copies, say), and I always said, I'm going to write fiction, stories – and they accepted this" (Tillman email interview 10/24/02). Nell McClister, in the Fall 2002 issue of Bomb magazine, describes Tillman as "a pioneer of fiction as art writing." McClister sees the construction of This Is Not It as one in which the "stories are meant to accompany, not comment on, the art …" (The Fall 2002 issue is not yet up, but Bomb's website is: http://www.bombsite.com).

How Tillman describes her process is as follows: "When it came to putting the book together, I chose the image I wanted from each artist to accompany the story. Sometimes I'd have written the story and then would choose an image (as in "Snow Job"), but usually I had written the stories in relation to or in association with (and sometimes very, very loosely) the images that the artist originally gave me for a catalogue, etc." Tillman was intricately involved with the book's design, doing the art for the cover and meeting with her editor, publisher (D.A.P. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.), and designer to "discuss everything from fonts, to font size, to the spacing between lines, etc." (Tillman email interview 10/24/02). Tillman and her publisher describe the process for this book as "charmed." The book shows the magic: it is a stunning work of art.

In these stories Tillman plays with language, the structure of narration, and our expectations of what a story does. A good example is "Come and Go." The reader cannot be passive because this text takes hairpin turns and pokes you with a stick. The story begins with three characters – Emma, Charles, and Maggie – and we jump from and into the mind of one to the others. There are some surprising turns in the narration, some directed play with what is truth and what are lies. The story ends with language and possibilities:

What Americans fear is the inability to have a world different from their father's and mother's. That's why we move so much, to escape history.

Margaret Fuller said: I accept the universe.

I try to embrace it. but I will leave it to others to imagine the world in ways I can't.

I leave it to others.

Out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything. I know there will be stories. Certainly, there will always be stories. (31)

My take on the meaning of the title This Is Not It is that the collection is not quite all of life: art is not quite life; no word is ever quite the right word, (because no words are ever truly exact, no word can ever mean exactly the same thing to two people at the same time [blue: did you think of a color or depression? if a color, what shade? if depression, what was the cause, the degree of the feeling?]). Even when Tillman pulls in more of the world, stretching the reader with stories and art, this is not it, exactly. The title brings to mind the famous Stevie Smith poem "Not Waving But Drowning" – though Tillman has more hope – with its refrain of misunderstanding: "I was much further out than you thought/ And not waving but drowning." Perhaps we live with the clouds of our selves occasionally blending along the edges with other people's clouds, maybe that's when the story we've heard resonates with us and we feel an internal "Yes!" rise joyfully inside. Sometimes, we do manage to communicate and understand each other.

Also This Is Not It, because no story is the last word on a subject. There is more life, or story, or art to come. There is more to be said. Hurrah!

P.R. Dyjak, Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English and Women’s Studies, University at Albany

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Lynne Tillman
Bookstore (1999)
No Lease on Life (1998)
The Madame Realism Complex (1992)
The Broad Picture (1997)
This Is Not It (2002)

Helen Vendler

Poetry critic for the New Yorker from 1978 to 2001, Helen Henessy Vendler is one of the most widely read critics of poetry in America. Vendler does "close readings" – an approach that focuses on just the poem on the page, ignoring most history, personal information, social and literary political movements. Vendler’s criteria are the aesthetics of the poem – Is it beautiful? Why this syntactic form? What are the successive feelings in this lyric? And she finds pleasure in "discovering the laws of being of a work of literature" (The Music of What Happens 20). She asks tough questions, of poets and critics of poets, such as, What happens to a poem when it is translated? if a translator has neglected to include such consideration in his essay. And she insists on responsible, clear, critical language by asking for definitions for loose terms such as "remarkable" and "interesting." A.O. Scott says of Vendler that she "holds to the old-fashioned, fundamentally democratic belief that the job of a critic is to help readers understand and better appreciate poems" (Nation).

Some of Vendler’s more recent work includes criticism Seamus Heaney (1998), who she has written about for decades; Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (1997) an anthology and handbook for educators who are teaching students who may not have previously read or studied poetry; The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1997) an explication of each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, giving a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto edition and a modernized version of each sonn et. Vendler had three books of criticism published in one year, 1995, something that is "nearly unprecedented" according to William T. Hamilton of the Bloomsbury Review, unless you are Helen Vendler, "probably the most influential critic of poetry at work in this country today." These books are: Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (1995), The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (1995); The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham (1995). The Music of What Happens (1988) is another collection of reviews and essays, and The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1985) is an anthology. Vendler’s poetry criticism appears in a number of journals besides the New Yorker, including the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review among others.

Ironically, Vendler initially wrote her reviews outside of her duties as an English professor in order to make money to support herself and her son in the late sixties. "I was a terribly overworked single mother, teaching ten courses a year: I had no money for household help or after-school child care for my son, who was in primary school. I was also moonlighting as a reviewer in order to pay for my son’s private school (the public school was being razed)" (Literary Resource Center). Her reviews, her poetry criticism have been the backbone of her reputation. As James E. Breslin says, regarding the collected reviews and essays of The Music of What Happens (1988), the intention of Vendler’s writing is "not to display the cleverness of the critic, but to make poetry a habitable place" (Los AngelesTimes Book Review). It is this consideration of her reader that may be why Vendler is so widely read.

"A young critic has to be taught to think not only of her subject but also of her reader," says Vendler. While she was writing her dissertation Vendler happened to drive her director to distraction with some "knotty pages," making him exclaim, "Helen, there are other minds!" This reminder that what is clear in one’s own mind is not necessarily clear to others prompts her to show the steps of her thinking, something at which Vendler excels. This is particularly clear in her handbook to accompany Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology where she explains what the lyric is:

Lyric tends to be like the systole and diastole of the heart: it has a center of concern around which it beats. That center organizes the rest, and we usually find in lyric a radial set of observations clustering around a single event, or utterance, or conception or disturbance. Instead of a firmly linear progress through successive events, we see a progressive deepening of understanding of a single thing. … Frequently, lyric poems "get nowhere" except to an ampler vision of where they started. And the place where they begin is usually a place of emotional disturbance. A paradigm of such construction occurs in Herbert’s "Prayer," …" (3-4)

Vendler takes the reader through each step of her thinking. In explaining the well-known form of lyric, (those terms we use the most are often the most difficult to explain!), she uses a heart metaphor which is understood both physically, as our circulatory systems revolve in a closed system around the heart, and figuratively, our emotional, sympathetic hearts often get caught on one issue or event. She describes the organization, the process or progress "ampler vision," and goes into a concrete example with Herbert’s "Prayer."

Vendler has said, "I could never … be a partisan of any one way of looking at poetry because I learned from them [professors at Boston University and Harvard] that poetry is subject to many forms of investigation. The answers you receive depend on the questions you ask … I have discovered that my questions tend to be psychological (what was the person who was compelled into uttering these lines feeling at the time?); generic (what sort of elegy is this, and how does it revise its predecessors?); stylistic (why these words in this order? why this syntactic form?); and architectonic (what is the architecture of this poem, its "floor-plan," its "elevation"?) My mind is not historical, and it is not philosophical: I would see more if I had leaning in either of those directions" (Literature Resource Center). We can see this in her discussion of Dave Smith’s poetry in the collection Goshawk, Antelope (1980):

No poet has ever wanted things more violently, even as a child. There is a Christmas when, "with a war raging and a father gone," the child gets from his mother the one thing he has longed for: a white holster for his gun, "the leather stiff and white, the red tears of glass, the black fake fur in tufts making a pony’s shape." An almost disordered happiness follows:

All day I will draw guns,
deep in a child’s joy,
shaking the cedar like a bomb.
Happy, I will shoot at her, happy.
until at last the words bang
form her mouth as she holds me,
saying yes, yes, yes.

This is an unnerving poetry, willing to go so far into demand, and equally far into denial. It is, in the literal sense, unbalanced; figuratively, it often loses its balance. Its shameless evoking of its ultimate terms, love and death, dares us to deny our own obsession with them. (The Music of What Happens 417)

Critics of Vendler, who see her approach to poetry as "deliberately non-historical, not so much challenging as avoiding the debates over the social construction of literature" also call her "one of our finest interpreters of lyric poetry." In regards to Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1997), Susanne Woods notes that her approach is "old-fashioned" yet "has a continuing relevance for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of poetry" (The Nation).

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.

P.R. Dyjak
Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English and Women’s Studies, University at Albany

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Helen Vendler

Colson Whitehead
The Intuitionist (1989) and John Henry Days (2001)

Colson Whitehead’s debut novel, The Intuitionist (1998) has been described as "a dizzyingly-high-concept debut of genuine originality … [that] ironically echoes and amusingly inverts Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man" (Kirkus Reviews) as well as "exceedingly interesting" in the way that it "reveling[s] in the workings of the mundane" (Thompson, Clifford Threepenny Review). The un-thought-of intrigues of elevator (a.k.a. vertical transport) inspectors are laid bare for the public in this novel as animosity over differences in inspection approach – is the inspector an ‘intuitionist’ or an ‘empiricist’ – divides the union and sets the stage for some sabotage and the set-up of the protagonist Lila Mae, the first black woman elevator inspector. A detective story told with wry wit, the novel is about being black in a world where white privilege is the norm. Walter Kirn of Time notes that it is "the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye."

When Lila Mae steps into the after-work haunt of the elevator inspectors, after the elevator crash, her fear is impressed on the reader, as well as the longevity and pervasiveness of her fear. This is not merely the fear of a worker who is directly involved in a catastrophe, but of such a worker who has grown up black in a country antagonistic to blackness.

Needless to say, Lila Mae doesn’t frequent O’Connor’s very often, usually just on the Department’s bowling nights, when it’s just her and Chuck and the resident alcoholics, this latter party posing no threat except to clean floors. Because her father taught her that white folks can turn on you at any moment. She fears for her life in O’Connor’s because she believes that the unexpected scrape of a chair across the floor or a voice’s sudden intensity contains the potentiality of a fight. On the few occasions Lila Mae has been in O’Connor’s during the broadcast of a baseball game or a boxing match, every cheer sent her looking for makeshift weapons. It doesn’t help matters that the bartender rings a large brass bell when a patron doesn’t tip; she jumps every time. Jumps at that sound and at the starter’s pistol they fire to quell disagreements, heated exchanges over the various merits and drawbacks of heat dispersal in United Elevator’s braking systems, say. They can turn rabid at any second; this is the true result of gathering integration: the replacement of sure violence with deferred sure violence. Her position is precarious in the office, she understands that, and in O’Connor’s as well; she’s a lost tourist among heavy vowels, the crude maps of ancestral homelands, and the family crests of near-exterminated clans. Her position is precarious everywhere she goes in this city, for that matter, but she’s trained dread to keep invisible in its ubiquity, like fire hydrants and gum trod into black sidewalk spackle. Makeshift weapons include shoes, keys and broken bottles. Pool cue if they’re handy. (23-4)

Lila Mae may be an elevator inspector with a flawless record, but what she does, does not ever make the issues of her race and sex moot; she is always a black woman in a white male dominated world. The Intuitionist won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award for 1999 and was a finalist in the Ernest Hemingway/PEN Award for First Fiction in 1999.

John Henry Days (2001), Whitehead’s second novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award for 2001. President of the New York Public Library Paul LeClerc praised the book as "remarkable in its scope, its ambition, its seriousness, and its wonderfully intelligent and varied writing. … This work of fiction is difficult, disconcerting, discomforting, upsetting and, in the end, glorious in its symphonic array of brilliant set pieces."

John Henry Days is about a reporter going down the same road as John Henry, the American folk hero, black railroad worker, who challenged a steam-drill and won, only to die at the end of the contest. J. Sutter, on a free-lance PR junket, ends up in Talcott West Virginia for the unveiling of the John Henry postage stamp. His attempt to go for the record in the number of consecutive days spent at publicity events, junketeering, corresponds to John Henry’s contest and allows Whitehead to explore the parallels between a black man of the Industrial Age and one of the Technological Age. But the novel is about more than this.

The Prologue to the novel contains 14 letters from various people purporting to have accurate information on John Henry – all the information is completely different. So at the very start of this piece of fiction, the nature of legends and truth are questioned. Just as the reader gets numerous truths about John Henry from the letter, s/he gets numerous truths from the many different characters whose heads Whitehead inhabits: J. Sutter, John Henry, Paul Robeson while he performs in the play John Henry, a rich-girl newspaper intern, Pamela Street – who considers selling her recently deceased father’s John Henry memorabilia to Talcott and is the only black person in town besides Sutter, postal employees, Alphonse Miggs – stamp collector, and more. This novel is aware that truths and legends come with multiple points-of-view. As Jonathan Franzen of the New York Times Book Review notes, like the novel’s "great-grandfather Moby Dick, John Henry Days has encyclopedic aspirations. Chapters of present action alternate with chapters that trace John Henry’s aftermath through 130 years of the nation’s life. Whitehead writes compellingly about John Henry himself, about the first black folklorist to investigate his legend, and about a midcentury blues singer who is induced, via drink and dollars, to cut a recording of "John Henry" in the back room of a Chicago record store."

The folk legend of John Henry is the organizing vortex or eye of the storm around which spins and combines the longings and lives of various people who have some kind of connection to John Henry. "The debased countercultural cynicism of the junketeers, J.’s compulsive collection of factoids and receipts to fuel the print media machine, and the warped nostalgic longings of Pamela and Alphonse are funneled into a tornado-like narrative storm, bits and pieces of the John Henry myth spinning in the updraft" (Publishers Weekly). And just as in Moby Dick, where a reader learns everything s/he ever wanted to know about whales, but still does not ever truly understand the whale Moby Dick, readers of John Henry Days learn a tremendous amount about the legend of John Henry, but how legends work and where they come from is still a mystery. We just know we need them.

Whitehead first found out about John Henry from a cartoon in elementary school. He says, "It’s safe to say that there was a lack of African-American superheroes when I was growing up, and the story immediately resonated with me. God bless my hippie teacher" (Doubleday Press Release). Whitehead states that "The idea of sacrifice is integral to the John Henry myth. … Heroic figures have to die in order for us to have our stories; we live and stand on their bones. In the book, exploring Henry’s story helps J., who’s this hack freelancer, come alive" (http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/05/13/reviews/010513.13zale.html). This perspective is seen rather clearly in the chapter on Paul Robeson where the narrator laments Robeson’s sad, slow decline into madness and obscurity. Whitehead seems to be of the school opposite to T.S. Eliot "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang, but a whimper." ("The Hollow Men") and in agreement with singer Neil Young, "better to burn out than fade away."

And while John Henry, the legend, is not just about one person up against the age of industry, and John Henry Days isn’t just about one human being against technology or the media machine, this theme is important. Technology intrudes but technology provides J.’s job:

HE ERASES EVERYTHING. The answering machine company had prominently advertised the salient feature of its new product – Keep Track of Your Messages from a Remote Location – and he can’t, by his sights, get more remote than he is now. He presses a button and is free. This is modern technology. One time he forgot his ATM number and he became less than human, see-through, he waved his hands in the faces of other people but they could not see or hear him. This was how he felt. He wandered the streets for a few hours without currency or an identity until his ATM number returned to his recall as suddenly as it had disappeared. It had been something of an existential dilemma and troubling but it hadn’t happened since.

This is Herb in Accounts Payable at Saturn Publishing. I’m still waiting on that Social Security number, sir, we can’t pay you unless we get a Social Security number for you. I assume you have one.

Checking his messages reminds him of the record so he starts thinking about how he’ll fill the requirements next week. There’s that paperweight thing on Tuesday so that’s taken care of. He can probably skip lunch that day, probably breakfast too because Sharp always puts out a nice spread for their products, and if this new paperweight is as half as good as the buzz maintains, they’ll really go all out. …

Hello, J., it’s Elaine. The piece looks great. There were just one or two things I changed so I’m going to fax you the new version and tell me what you think. We’re closing the issue in half an hour, so if you can get back to me before then, great. (232-3)

Colson Whitehead is a 2000 Whiting Writers’ Award recipient and recently received a MacArthur Foundation Grant. His next novel is about flesh-colored Band-Aids

P.R. Dyjak
Graduate Assistant, NY State Writers Institute
Poet, graduate student in English and Women’s Studies, University at Albany

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Colson Whitehead