NOR 4 #46: Interview with Frederick Barthelme

By Gary Percesepe
Featured Image: Seated Youth Writing in Book by Raphael

Gary Percesepe: You wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review in April 1988, back when the “minimalism slash postmodern” discussion in literature was still in vogue. It had a wonderful Veronica Geng title, “On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Bean.” Your essay sparked a lively discussion among academic folk which was published in Critique in 1990 as “Postmodernism: The Uninhabited Word, Critics’ Symposium.” Looking back twenty years later, what has changed, and what remains the same?

Frederick Barthelme: As I recall the essay came out a week before there was a gathering of sixties postmodernists at Brown, and the Critique piece was part of the proceedings thereof. In my essay there were too many jokes, but the drift of the thing was substantial enough. I was trying to argue that there was something subsequent to the postmodernism of the 1960s and 1970s, and that something was a combining of postmodernist sensibility and tactics with “realistic” characters and representational narrative. At root the idea was that playful, clever, self-conscious, surface-oriented writing had become too easy and too tired. We were ready for something else. At the same time, I didn’t want to revert to “realist” writing, I wanted to preserve the territory that [Donald Barthelme], Jack Barth, Hawkes, Coover, and Gass had won. I made the assumption, for example, that Ray Carver had figured out that if you could do anything, you could do nothing, and that was a postmodern twist on realism. As it turned out, Ray had some considerable help figuring this out, so maybe he wasn’t as postmodern as I imagined. Anyway, this idea prevailed for fifteen or twenty minutes and then the whole shebang did revert to old-fashioned realism, after which I stopped paying attention. Recently, the triumph of memoir, etc.

GP: Of the writers you mention, it would appear that William Gass never came to understand your appreciation of his work, nor your critique. Hedidn’t get Mary Robison either, or Ann Beattie. In the great parking lot of fiction, what spaces do Gass and the others currently occupy? And what do you make of Jonathan Franzen’s classification project of contract authors vs. status authors?

FB: I read the Franzen/Marcus exchange a few years ago and thought not much about it. The idea of “experimental work” is tired baggage carried endlessly forward from the sixties. I’ve seen nothing remotely fresh in an experimental way since then. Instead, over the last thirty years I’ve seen a lot of remakes masquerading as “experimental fiction,” leaning on the label for credibility, position, publication. Equally, the notion that “difficulty” is the purpose of some work (Gaddis or otherwise) is bone-headed. The contract/status model Franzen drummed up seems kind of self-serving and possibly not worthy of study.
As to the people I followed in the sixties, it seems to me now that Gass   is most interesting for his essays on writing—Fiction and the Figures of Life being the first of those collections, I think. On Being Blue, which is an instruc- tion manual of a kind, is a terrific book, particularly the first fifty pages. His “experimentation” (as in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife) had the scent of academe about it. Gaddis I’m not a big fan of because I always thought that in writing, the quality of the sentences was of the first importance. Barth and Hawkes are two longstanding favorites. Coover is very good early. And I also liked Cheever, and Joe McElroy. Lots of others. Anyone who writes well and carefully is O.K. with me. Anyone who doesn’t, isn’t.

GP: Often the “major writers” of any moment are lauded for writing big books on big subjects, so you get Rushdie, DeLillo, Pynchon, etc. More recently Denis Johnson, with the Vietnam book. You seem to work away from the “big brush” stuff—is there a reason for that, or is that happenstance?

FB: Some of each. I’m uncomfortable with the kinds of sweeping characterizations of the worlds and the cultures in which we live, the tendency to see the forest and miss the trees, so there’s a built-in reluctance to even approach a work that projects a schematic for a world that seems to me much more accidental and incidental. I’m not fond of the kinds of generalizations that are the stock in trade of weekly news magazines and “big” novels. On the one hand they’re phony as a result of being generalizations, and at the same time they always get the details wrong anyway—the people, the things they do and say, the way the day feels on the street, in the car, at the club, at the office, with the wife, with the lover, with the kids. It’s all TV of one kind or another. The big books tend to be more about the grandness of their authorsthan the grandness of the world, and my sense of things is that (a) most of us are not all that grand to begin with, and (b) the world itself is grand, astonishing first to last. So I tend in my stories and novels to stick pretty close to small scale stuff, people doing what they do, trying to find a way through the fog. I try not to miss the details that reveal us.

GP: Going back to Ray Carver—what’s your take on the latest dustup about the role of Gordon Lish in the Carver editing job?

FB: I don’t think much about it. Carver-Lish was a fortuitous coupling for Carver. It made his work much more fascinating in that moment. Some argue that the untouched work is better, and it may be, but my guess is that it would never have made the splash it did without Lish. Gordon is a complete nutball as an editor, no disrespect, and took advantage of the naiveté of writers who didn’t realize they could just say no. Or maybe it wasn’t Gordon taking advantage, but the writers realizing they might become significantly less famous if they just said no. In any case it’s a shame that people are taking the opportunity to pile on Lish yet again. He was and is a brilliant editor who brought Carver out of a much rougher stone.

GP: Your new novel, Waveland, is set on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, a place you’ve “branded” every bit as much as “Thomas Hardy’s Wessex County.” Unlike Hardy, you haven’t bothered to fictionalize the place-names. Waveland, Mississippi, was hard hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and you live not far away in Hattiesburg. What is it about this place that makes you want to return again and again?

FB: It’s a homemade Macondo. It’s not Waveland or Pass Christian (which, delightfully, is pronounced pass kris-chee-ANN down here), but a mental space where these characters play out their lives. That it is, in fact, a place in Mississippi means it’s far enough away from everything to be useful. It’s off the map, out of the game—a cardboard tree against a construction paper landscape on the wall of a cafeteria somewhere. Since I’min the business of making up an entire world, it’s easier to start with a place with nothing in it, but which, at the same time, has the bona fides of a “real” place.
Plus, there’s something evocative about coast towns, that sense that they are at the end of the world, that after this, nothing. Water and sky. I think that’s the largest part of the attraction. It’s a place disconnected, and it’s finite, it stops at water’s edge. Years ago I was interested in all therude crap that lined the highway that runs along the Gulf. The wind blew and the gorilla up on the pole rotated, his paw upraised. Wonderful atnight.

GP:   You  come from a family of writers. In the 1980s you could pick up the New Yorker in successive issues and catch a short story by one of the Barthelme brothers, Donald or Frederick. You wrote a novel called Bob the Gambler, about a couple who do a lot of losing at a Gulf Coast casino, which was followed by a book you wrote with your younger brother Steve, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, recounting how the two of you came to lose more than a quarter million dollars in two years. Passages from your novels contain poignant remembrances of parents that bear a striking resemblance to your own and to passages in Double Down. How do you see the relationship between fiction andmemoir? What is truth in fiction? What’s your take on the rise of memoir and the “fall of fiction” in the present moment?

FB: Memoir is just another kind of fiction, fiction on a really tight leash. I did the gambling book with my brother Steve, and I liked doing it, but it was different from fiction because I didn’t have to make everything up. Instead I could simply remember it, which was a great luxury. Memoir brings into play issues of fairness that do not necessarily come up in writing novels. The tight leash is that the story is true, so you have all these obligations to get it right, to be honest, to depict the “characters” as wholly and accurately as you can. The job gets harder that way, but I like memoir particularly because when done well it is less about the author than some other writing.
As to the rise of memoir, I think we’re fascinated by our world, and that’s a good thing, maybe even a new thing. It used to be that everybody wanted to be an artist—to make stuff up, imagine, fabricate. Now everybody wants to be a cold case detective. In memoir, as in life, truth is that friend who is never around when you need her.
I use the autobiographical material about my parents because I remember them with great fondness. They were the source of everything—the ideas, the attitudes, the approaches to problems, the heart. They made the jokes, they did the thinking, viewed the world and passed the view along to all the kids. They showed us how to gauge things, how to read things, how to understand the world around us, how to push aside what needs to be pushed aside, how to embrace what needs to be embraced. Everything comes directly from them. All the children are poor copies of my mother and father.

GP: What do you think about when you think of your brother Donald, and his body of work?

FB: I think the stories, thirty or forty years out, stand like monuments. I expect it’ll stay that way. The only downside, if you’re looking for adownside, is that he more or less consumed the territory. The work is so original, so fresh and idiosyncratic, that it can’t be extended, only copied.
As a painter, I was always looking at the recent history of painting to figure out what to do next, what the paintings were about, and how I could work off of that. You see the development of painting through the last century, for example, how one painter follows another. But then there are the abso- lutely wonderful individuals who stand alone. Like Joseph Cornell. The work is transcendent and will last forever, but he ate up the whole area he worked in. Nobody will ever in good conscience make a Cornell box again. You’ve got the real things, and then you’ve got the commercial artist’s version in some Coke ad.

GP: Moon Deluxe and Chroma are among the finest short story collections that I’ve ever read. Not long ago you told me that you’d gone back to reading the short stories of William Trevor and Alice Munro. Will you be writing more short stories?

FB: I miss writing stories. I quit in the early 1990s because I was writing novels, or maybe it was really because I lost Veronica Geng, the wonderful New Yorker editor I worked with until the magazine sent her packing—a dark chapter in the magazine’s history. Now, more than before, stories seem like fragments of larger works, even stories that are terribly well crafted—it’s as if the form itself has changed, acknowledged that astory can never be more than a glance, an incident, something seen from the window of a passing car. I kind of like that idea, so that’s where I’ll beif I write stories. Trevor is a big favorite. Munro I was fond of for a bit, but have lately begun to think less of. I admire the work, but I’m not really sent to heaven by it.
Often I’ll read stuff the students suggest to see what they’re interested in, what they’re touched by. Most of it falls away readily, while the students’ own work rarely does. When you teach you get fond of your students, and you in- vest in them, and when they’re doing good work the pleasure is substantial.

GP: Geng was a terrific writer, funny as hell. What was she like to work with as an editor?

FB: Veronica got everything. Whatever was on the page, suggested, hinted at, squinted at, thrown off, etc. The most oblique reference or aside, thejoke with three arms, whatever it was you put into the story, she got. It was astonishing to work with her because it was like working with a muchquicker, funnier, and wiser version of yourself. Where did this better self come from? you wondered. And, as they say, that’s not just my opinion. Everyone who worked with her— Roth, Trevor, Keillor, and a dozen others—they would all tell you the same thing. Perfect pitch, impeccable timing. All heart.

GP: Your characters are often underemployed men on the other side of fifty, working at the margins of “high art” or technology or academe or journalism. They are fascinated by the young, who catapult them into road trips and other adventures. The guys seem grateful. My favorite character is Jen, in The Brothers and Painted Desert, who edits an alternative newsletter alternately called Warm Digits and Organ Meats.

FB: I’ve been fifty-something since I was thirty, and surely I’ve been unsuccessful by the usual measures—who isn’t unsuccessful these days? But yes, all the men are in thrall of the young and the bright and they follow them around in what may seem an unseemly way. They want some of that old-fashioned elixir these kids got. The kids are all idealized and charming about the obvious and nearby limitations of their skills. This is a What? Me worry? world. Still, the premium is always on energy and heart, and Jen is all about both, in your face, moving at the speed of light through practically everything. She plays her whole life over her shoulder. She’s what we’d build if we could build people.

GP: I recall a conversation we had in 1994, in which you observed that you hadn’t been all that fair to your women characters in your earlier writing. What did you mean by that?

FB: No, I was always fairer to the women. I liked them better. The men are often jokes, parodies, attacks on various kinds of misbehavior I’ve seen and done. I don’t much like men in general, whereas I find women much more pleasant. It’s not some big deal, only that I’d rather be around women all the time and I’m just as pleased if they leave their men at home.
In the stories and the novels the women are always the power. They’re tougher, smarter, faster, cleaner, funnier, kinder—really the engines of everything. Jen’s a good example, but Winter and Freddie in Elroy Nights are much the same. Everything happens because the women want it to happen, and it happens the way it happens because that’s the way they steer it. They do all this steering from the edge of the frame, of course, so itrarely looks like they’re steering. It is, as one reviewer said, just like real life.

GP: Will Jen be making a return in another story or novel? Is she still single? Is she?

FB: It would be swell to think so. She could remain nineteen in perpetuity. In the current novel* she shape-shifts into a somewhat darker character, an ex- army guy named Eddie who has one hand and some opinions about our government and our world.

GP: In Law of Averages, a retrospective of your short stories, you write that “Shopgirls” (which was published by Esquire after having been turned down by the New Yorker) changed everything for you. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in your work among literary critics, and “Shopgirls” is still front and center. Why does that story hold up, after three decades? And what did you make of the comedian Steve Martin’s novel, Shopgirl (no “s,” later made into a movie starring Martin and Claire Danes).

FB: I was a little ticked about Steve Martin. I mean, hasn’t he already got enough on his plate? What’s he doing taking stuff off my plate?
The story “Shopgirls” was important because it moved completely away from Don’s influence. It was a story going in a direction that he had never gone, and it took me years to find that direction. So it was a thrill to finish, a thrill to have Veronica like it even if she did not take it for theNew Yorker, and a thrill to publish it later in Esquire.
I don’t think stories “hold up” in quite the way you suggest. It’s an interesting story with some edge and it plays out in a threatening man/woman arena, and it manages to find some soul and a little romance, and some hope there near the end.
Some meeting place is discovered for the players, and the players are kind of odd, off-center, not down-the-line types, so in some sense it’s talking about the kinds of “ordinary people” who didn’t get a lot of attention back then. It’s tight and quick, and it’s funny from time to time. It pays itsway.
One thing I learned from Don is that you have to write well all the time. That means edit like crazy, get the right words in the right order, cutthe extras, polish, tighten every chance you get—things like that. This has made me intolerant of writers who are no doubt interesting in one way or another, but write like fuzz balls. A lot of our current excessivists™ fall into this category. I guess that stands to reason. If you’re writing a 1300-page book nine times out of ten it is by definition fat and sloppy.

GP: I’m tempted to inspect the trademark, do a word count, scan the product, name the brands. Wink wink, nudge nudge. But I do want to ask,why did you choose to write “Shopgirls” in the second person? Did you ever consider a dif- ferent point of view?

FB: Sure, but I had started writing second-person stories in the 1970s, and thought I’d discovered something brand new, the way these stories read, the kind of otherworldly feel they had, which was particularly effective coupled with deadpan “ordinary life” narratives. I loved the way these stories sounded—foreboding, threatening, like the voice-over in a Godard movie, or the trance-like stuff from Last Year at Marienbad. It was exciting and transforming, at least until I figured out you could write anything in the second person and it had the same eerie feel. At somepoint, after I’d sold three or four second-person stories to the New Yorker, Mr. Shawn suggested to Veronica that I might try something in first or third person, so I did that. That worked, too. The stories were strange enough by themselves to produce the satisfying feel. I think it was the flatness of tone that set your teeth on edge.

GP: How would you characterize the critical reception to your work over the course of your writing career? Do the reviews sometimes surprise you?

FB: Critical response has been very generous overall, much more supportive than not, though there were always writers attacking—somehow what I was doing interfered with what they were doing. I figured they were somebody else’s friends.
I sometimes found it surprising how much misreading there is among reviewers. Someone once wrote a rave review of one of my novels praising me and the book for having delivered a scathing indictment of the bankrupt and wretched consumer culture. Of course, if anything, the book was acelebration of the bankrupt and wretched consumer culture. So it goes. You take what comes.

GP: You originally wrote Waveland in the first person, and then rewrote it in the third person. Why did you choose to do that, and what factorsgovern your choice of POV, in a general sense?

FB: I like first person. It’s comfortable. I use autobiography, of course, but  it’s all remix, paste-up, collage. This book needed extra distance between the reader and the characters, the reader and the narrative. That little bit of “out- side looking in” business that comes from third person. I wanted distance and I wanted to place the reader at a distance. And I wanted a little stiffness. I did the whole book, many drafts, in first, and then, about a year ago, did a cold transform into third to see if that would get closer to the feel I wanted. It did, so I reworked in third from there on. Generally POV just comes to you. It’s not calculated. The work tends to select its own POV.

GP: How does it feel for you, in the writing, when you are writing a short story as opposed to a novel?

FB: They feel the same in the day-to-day work, but the story is a more delicate object, whereas with the novel you’re always looking for things to throw in, just to keep the narrative fresh, the characters on their toes, and you’re always looking around for things you might want to explore more fully, stuff to mix up the game. Obviously, with a story, you do less of that because you’ve got to bring it in at three or four thousand words. Of course, now there’s the “long story” business, where a premium is put on providing a novel-like experience in ten or twelve thousand words. I guess that comes from Alice Munro and others. That may be an interesting idea.
But the novel—even the short novel—is a long work with plenty of room in it. It’s like spending a week in the museum as against seeing a couple of in- teresting paintings at somebody’s house when you’re there for cocktails.

GP: In Two Against One you experimented with a tape recorder, dictating the novel, and later transcribing it. Is this a process you still use?

FB: Yes. Two Against One was in the mid-1980s and I wanted to write looser work. I’d been editing tight for years for the New Yorker stories, and I’d done that, too, in my first two longer works, the novel Second Marriage, and the short novel Tracer. So I started using a handheld mini tape recorder. Two Against One was published pretty much as dictated. There was minor editing, but not much. And, of course, there was editing—rewriting, really—in the dictation, by rewinding the tape and re-dictating the line or the paragraph or the piece of dialogue. But the book is basically as it was spoken into the tape recorder.
Since then I’ve used dictation to generate material, getting the first drafts of things. The novels are done in fifteen- or twenty-page chunks, usually determined by how much dictation fits on a side or two of tape. Then the tapes are transcribed and assembled into the longer work. There is always some switching around, so that work doesn’t always end up appearing in the book in the order it was dictated. And, since Two Against One, everything gets edited, written and rewritten, sometimes too much.
With Waveland the editing took about four or five years. It got too tight, then too loose, and then I re-tightened and added stuff. I’m doing a lot more patching things together because I like the way that feels when you’re reading it. There’s a helter-skelter feel to the movement in the book, which gives it some extra interest.

GP: As editor of the Mississippi Review, you took the magazine online in 1995, way before many other small literary magazines. What was your rea- soning at the time, and how do you see the difference between the electronic version and the print version? More broadly, what space does the“little maga- zine” occupy in today’s literary world?

FB: We put MR online in early 1995. We offered original stories and poems and essays, and didn’t just use the Web site as a teaser ad for the print maga- zine. This has turned out to be the right idea.
I never thought of online and print magazines as different kinds of things, just magazines in different packages. For a while there wasresistance to online magazines, but that has diminished by now everywhere but among the trog- lodytes.
The online version of Mississippi Review, which has some content from the print magazine, but mostly original content, is much more successful, if you measure in terms of numbers of viewers, than the print magazine. We get something on the order of a four hundred thousand visits a year, one and a half million hits, we “serve” nine hundred thousand files. That’s putting more writing into more hands than we ever could with the print version.
As to the health of the literary magazine, I guess it is fine. I am concerned about the poison of commercialization that’s running though the book and literary world generally, where, as in all other parts of the culture, celebrity trumps art. Where we used to have clearly defined literary writers and main- stream writers, we now have literary writers desperate to become household words. There are too many examples of this to list, but it has an effect on the new writers, people scrambling to get published in literary magazines, and on the editors of the magazines, who are striving to hit it big as editors with their trendy Web magazines.
In the end you’ve got to figure whatever brings attention to writing and doesn’t kill it is O.K.

GP: You want to name names here, or do we want to paddle on over to the safe side of the river?

FB: Let’s stand aside. There is something that can be said, though, and it is this: when I moved to New York in 1967 I was making visual art, concept art, hanging out with Joseph Kosuth, Larry Weiner, Doug Hubler, Seth Sieglelaub, and at the same time hanging out a lot with my brother Don. The world was a lot simpler. We wanted to be in shows, have gallery representation, but really the art was the only thing that mattered, the only thing we talked about. With Don the same thing was true—it was all about the art, the writing, how it could be better, more interesting, richer. The idea was make the work better and it will bring joy and riches. Well, joy, anyway. And that was all that was wanted.
But something horrible has happened between then and now. Self- promotion has kind of gotten out of hand. You understand it because the culture has gone that way and the world is full of success stories made just this way, but try to imagine Don putting up his own web site, or, for that matter, Larry Poons, or Jules Olitski, or Carl Andre. Wouldn’t happen. Here’s Barnett Newman’s Myspace page. Probably not. Which is not to saythere wasn’t plenty of you-scratch-my-back going on, but nothing like now. I’m not sure this blizzard of self-promotion is a wonderful thing. It may be necessary to make yourself heard, and, to be truthful, some artists I knew were more inclined toward self-promotion than others. Still, we could probably use less of it.

GP: Your characters watch a lot of TV. There’s a dollop of media stupidity. During the O.J. Simpson thing, Del & Jen watch TV in the car, carry the TV into a restaurant, get so worked up they set out for L.A. to set things right in South Central, only to drive off into the Painted Desert, where presumably there are no TVs. They gave up trying to fix things, and opted to take the small pleasures, which come to seem very large, indeed. It’s a choice that many of your characters make. But it seems that your middle-aged characters are getting more tired, more cynical, less willing to make the effort. It’s like they’re saying, “You won’t catch me hoping again.” Or they figure that personal redemption is at least something, even if the world’s going to hell?

FB: I don’t buy the tired part, really. The characters are working in their own ways in their own worlds. Maybe they’ve discounted the meta-culture, the TV/ Newsweek version of things, but they’ve got plenty going on. Some of them are elaborately stepping aside, retreating, movinginto the shadows, content to have achieved some balance. They still have mighty hopes but they aren’t nec- essarily for the obvious thingsconsidered rewards by the culture—the $85,000 Mercedes, the award, the invitation to go on TV, etc.
And personal redemption is not “something” for these people now, it’s ev- erything. After a certain age you kind of get that the celebrities ofour society— from the Hollywood stars, to star scientists, filmmakers, writers, painters, to the talking heads, sports heroes, all the “visiblepeople”—are sort of beside the point. They’re celebrities, whether they’re actors in films or actors in the literary cultures, or the political culture, or whatever. So the characters I’m writ- ing tend to think that almost every area of the culture is poisoned, so they’ve turned away, tending now to their own tiny gardens, which are what is left to them, but are also strangely sufficient.
I guess they have come to believe that the world we live in is dopey, and not in a good way. A place with few redeeming virtues. It’s endlessly wrong. Touch it and you’re stuck to it and utterly limited by it. All your moves are constrained by your eager participation. Whether you’re twenty-three and hopeful, or sixty-five and bloviating, you are, finally and irrevocably, part of the problem. By this calculus, this interview is part of the problem unless we can make it eat its tail.

GP: The Catholic activist Dorothy Day said that our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system, by which she meant an oppressive social structure of domination that locks in inequalities and injustices and keeps people feeling powerless to change things. Some still wish to claim that art can empower people to resist systems that they find oppressive, or did that go out of fashion with Sartre? And regarding this interview, how will we know when it has chowed down?

FB: It won’t get close. Everything’s a mess and getting worse not better. Howard Beale. But noticing the problem is a tiny step. Remarking on it is astep. Art can empower, as can hope. Pureness of spirit—that’s the ticket. Cleanse yourself.

GP: Your characters pray a lot, sometimes during sex. They’re especially fond of the “Our Father.” I’ve always thought that your work was marked by a desire for absolution and redemption, not just for oneself, but for others. In Two Against One, Edward walks around the subdivision mulling things over, then muttering to himself, then shouting, Hey, do you think you’re not a part of this? You are. We are all the same. Don’t hold yourself apart. There is this basic egalitarianism that I see in your work, combined with a deep compassion. You often mask things, go for the easy joke. But it’s there. And do you have favorite prayers?

FB: I don’t know what to say about this. It seems to me that many things are prayers. Many things we didn’t know were prayers turn out to beprayers. Some of the crap we do day-to-day, simple stuff, ordinary stuff, is a kind of prayer. Hope and desire are prayers. When you start viewing things this way, almost everything becomes a prayer. Tonight, because we discussed it some years ago, I’m reminded of Rachel Corrie, run over by an Israeli bulldozer. Standing in front of the bulldozer as it set about the destruction of a Palestinian’s house was a prayer. Googling Rachel Corrie today, whether or not you know her story, is a prayer. I love the idea of prayer and if I had my way the characters would probably pray from page one to page the last. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s what they’re doing. In the old books, and in the new one. As for favorite prayers, I likeall of them. The smallest, most private ones the best. I love the sign of the cross. And for the regular prayers like the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles Creed, I always wonder who wrote these things? They’re like old wood.

GP: OK, let’s talk about dogs. Your work is filled with dogs that seem as bemused as their “owners.” Come to think of it, there are a lot of dogs out there in contemporary fiction-land. There’s Amy Hempel’s work, which practically barks, and Ann Beattie comes to mind as a big dog lover.

FB: They are such masters, those two. As to their dogs—I’m all for ‘em. I like dogs. They’re active, friendly, attractive, have lots of hair (many of them), and are an enrichment of daily life. They help us see ourselves clearly, in fiction as in life.

GP: We did some emailing back and forth while you were writing Waveland. You told me that you wanted to make this novel messier, more disconnected, get back to your aesthetic roots as a visual artist. Are you pleased with the way Waveland turned out?

FB: Waveland has a nice Frankenstein stitched-together quality, and the stitches are rough and irregular. I don’t know why but I like that a lot and kept as much of it as I could. I like the idea of adding material to the novel, to the overall text, without too much concern about how it connects to the story being told. In a way it is being more interested in the art object as literary object, which is a throwback to what I started to do with books in the first place, with Rangoon and with War & War. The premise for those books was simple: the book is a container. It’s also an organizing principle (pages). It’s brilliantly portable and it has great range, in that there are many kinds of things it can contain. So Waveland is thefirst of my subsequent books in which I’ve allowed myself to revisit in a small way the territory that I was interested in when I did the first two books. Here we’re much more literary, working with a story, with a linear narrative, with some ideas of cultural commentary, and with characters at the center of things, but allowing certain kinds of movement (in time, subject, point of view, sequence, etc.) that are working slightly against the conventions of ordinary narrative.
I’m not thinking these are new things, though they may have been newish in 1969 in Rangoon and in 1970 with War & War. As I’ve written elsewhere, in those books I was interested in Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, or at least in the fundamental conceit of that book, which for me had to do with making a mass-produced art object that was full of various kinds of (peculiar) information, some literal, some graphical, some factual, some imaginary, some literary, some iconic, etc. This is an area of enterprise that has recently been mined again by various folks, though with a particularly snarky and self-satisfied overlay in which I’m less interested.
Some of my writing characterized as minimalist was really something else, but because the literary critics didn’t have a plastic arts background they missed a dimension. This meant I was marked down because I didn’t spray paint the tree trunks in the way literary writers of the, say, Madison Bell persuasion, might have. Still, I got to do the work, and some people enjoyed it and understood it as response to the work of the 1960s postmodernists, so that was worth it.
And the way that work then veered into more conventional narratives in the novels was a kind of natural progression in which the sensibility of the narrative became the literary disruption or displacement, and the narrative itself was free to relax into more common formulations. Then I started adding back in the cultural commentary and so forth, though I admit I always did it with as much disguise as I could whip up. I think this is because I always find the narrative voice “teacher” despicable and corrupt, whether it’s in a classroom, or in a book, or at a cocktail party, or anywhere, really. I’m a firm believer in nobody knows anything, and I instantly dislike anyone who presents himself or herself as hugely knowledgeable. Which is not to say I’ve never met people who were hugely knowledgeable. The contrary is true. I’ve met lots of such people, but most wouldn’t present themselves that way.

GP: If your next novel was a film, would it look something like Three  Colors?

FB: I loved those movies. What’s that guy’s name? Kieslowski? All three movies were extraordinary and potent, intimate, detailed. I’d like to think you could make a movie like that out of something of mine. That close focus fabric- of-life stuff is what I’m always doing when I’m writing. Trying to both show the world the characters wade around in and show how that world feels for the characters, how it feels for these characters to live these lives.

GP: I’ve always thought that Tracer would have made a fascinating movie. It was edgy, sexy, disturbing, and entirely strange. Didn’t you do a screenplay?

FB: Yes.  It was bought for film by Gary Sinese and his partner,  and I wrote  a couple of screenplays. Then other people wrote other screenplays, I think. Eventually it just slipped away. It was said to be on many desks in Hollywood for many years.

GP: Is it possible to have one more aesthetic shake-up, as in 1981 where you broke clear of Don & imitators, this time to break free of FrederickBarthelme as in “the corpus,” the heavy body of work, to write the novel that you most want to write? The literary object as objet d’art?

FB: I don’t know if it’s possible, or if I even want to “break free.” I’d like to write better stories and novels, and I certainly think it’s possible to extend the work in the ways I’m talking about, though I do not expect the work to be as intensely strange as those early books I mentioned. That strangeness was dearly bought, and I’m less strange now than then. I think.
If you use somebody like Trevor as the ideal, a model where you have a certain set of interests and you follow them, maybe a little relentlessly, wherever they go, then that’s what I’d hope to be doing henceforth. Salter is another example of the kind of thing I like to see a writer do. Jack Barth is another—a longtime hero, still up to his old tricks. I wish Jack Hawkes was still with us for the same reason. I’m not much for the artist myths, the “breaking free” business. I’m more about making the next story, the next painting. I keep trying to get my friend Fredericka Hunter in Texas to give me a show where we put up paragraphs, big printed paragraphs, of . . . well, I don’t know what. Bits of stories, pages out of printed books, maybe, my books, I mean. At least for starters. I want to see these texts as paintings, blown apart, bits and pieces, enlarged, up there on the wall. That would be satisfying.


I have a new collection of poetry out— THE WINTER OF J  (Poetry Box Press, May 2020)

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