A Conversation with Frederick Busch
Karen Novak is a writer and teacher living in Mason, Ohio, with her husband and their two daughters. Her first novel, Five Mile House, was published in October 2000. She's currently at work on her second.
KN: When you started down the path of this narrative, did you know where it was headed?
FB: I knew where I was going with this one. Sometimes I have to write my way into (and out of) a book. Sometimes I have to write it many times before I understand where it ought to go, how it ought to work. But this time I knew. I found a clipping, about two years before the publication of the novel that concerned a man--not a lawyer--who had constructed a story like Marcus's. He killed himself. His wife discovered his body, and a great pile of paper--a manuscript he left behind. I wanted so very much to read that manuscript! I couldn't, of course. So I wrote it. It's Closing Arguments.
KN: So, Marcus Brennan is lying--or is he?
FB: Marcus has been lying since the war he never served in. When he writes his closing argument, the summation of his "case," his brief on behalf of his client, in other words, he is telling the truth. The way to find out is to figure out the identity of his client: he, himself, whom he accuses, judges, finds wanting, but seeks to explain. In the place of a jury or judge, he places "the reader," "Dear Rochelle"--terms he uses interchangeably and even together. They are fused for him--or at least for me. Marcus directs, as do I, the pleading of his argument to Rochelle, whom he loves and whom he has crushed and exhausted and to whom he feels innumera- ble obligations and emotions. He calls her his "dear Reader," and the reader--the audience for this novel--might also feel as if Marcus is directing his history and commentary to them. I hope that happens.
This fiction is about the relationship of the author, who has lied, who does lie, but who also tries to shape the truth-- that is, who creates a fiction--while, at the same time, it is about the loving, despairing, powerful, dangerous relationship between two characters who started out in love, who now are left with only the tatters of their love, and who cannot leave it behind them. They are connected to the end. Rochelle as well as the reader--she is Marcus's reader, just as you, the reader, are mine--will be the last person named in the book.
All fiction lies. All artful fiction lies in order to tell some truth. Marcus is both a liar and a man of decency. The novel is about decency and its loss, and it is about lying in order to get at the truth. So, is Marcus lying? Absolutely. And absolutely not.
KN: Concerns of telling and not telling, lying for protection and the lie of protection, wind as strong currents through much of your work. In Closing Arguments, however, you state it directly: "The best defense is a good story" but "The innocent are not protected." Pretty naked declarations.
FB: My "naked declarations" are about the two currents of concern that brought me to write the novel. One is the nature of the interaction between the reader, who seeks information, and the writer, who decides how it is dispensed, which I wished to examine without boring myself or my reader to death. That was a subconscious concern, apparently. For I set out, simply, to tell the story of Marcus and Estella and Rochelle, their family, their histories, their small-town world, and Marcus's remarkable misdeeds. When I reread some of the book, during the writing of my first draft, I understood the very simple shape of my book: a lawyer writes on his legal pad at night, alone in his office ( just as Richard Nixon, one of the authors of the Vietnam madness, wrote on one in his), confessing to himself the reality of his acts and the truths of his being. But what struck me as not simple was the way in which the novel seemed to indirectly be commenting on the way stories are told, on how the reader reacts to the writer, whom he or she cannot quite trust but on whose every word the reader must rely. As Marcus addressed his wife, whom he loved and betrayed, to whom he had lied and to whom he now wished to address the truth, I heard the voice of the writer addressing the reader--whom he loved ardently and who maybe felt betrayed by the writer who is always talking, talking, talking. Is that meta-fiction? Postmodern fiction? Nah. It's the way it always has been: I love you; I am wooing you; I know that you don't thoroughly trust me, though I want you to.
KN: You use the horror of Vietnam on multiple levels to convey a sort of "ripple effect" in the tragedy of Marcus Brennan and his family. There's more than historical reference at work here?
FB: Equally important to me is the requirement of civilization that we must--if we are to think of ourselves as civilized-- protect our young and those who cannot defend themselves. Life is a bully. Our contemporary life is so crowded--you are never alone: TV and the Internet see to that--and will not permit small or sick or scared or needy people to live without oppression. The Vietnam War not only oppressed the civilians of Southeast Asia; it killed a lot of, and it bent and perhaps even broke a generation. It changed the way we conduct our business as a government, and the way we respond to the actions of our government. It sent a generation of young black men to die or be maimed or changed horribly within their skulls. It blew up a generation of white men. In doing so, it tattered countless white and black and brown and yellow families.
I try, in my novels, to consider both the domestic and the larger, public, arenas of our interior and civic concerns. While I examined the big world of the Vietnam War, I wanted, as well, to examine the small--that of Marcus and Estella, that of Marcus's family. I wanted to think of individual children who are terrorized by adults, whose days are nightmares and whose nights are inconceivable. I hate bullies. I am drawn to the defense of littler people. It's probably some terrible adolescent self-pity of mine, but it has influenced a lot of my decisions. Since I am not built for the wearing of tights and a cape, I try, in my fiction, to do what I can about the defense of those I call the innocent.
KN: Do you consider Marcus one of the innocents?
FB: Marcus has been trying to protect what innocence is left in him, and in Estella, and, by extension, in the world. As corrupt as he is, he is also what is left of a good man--or, believe it or not, of a man trying to find out how to be good. My generation was blighted by the Vietnam War just as Marcus, the individual, was. In a time of cruelty of the large against the small--or a time when we are more aware of it, anyway-- the novel is concerned with defending what innocence can be preserved. While Marcus behaves badly, he is also aware of the requirement that he try to be good.
KN: The character of Estella serves as the embodiment of huge and destructive forces in Marcus's life. In Dickens's Great Expectations, another Estella serves much the same role for Pip in another story of falsified identities. What is the design behind the association?
FB: Yes, there was some design. I have always loved and feared Estella. During my youth--and I think I'm not the only man who can say this--I met an Estella or two. Oh, she wasn't necessarily corrupted by a parent or foster parent playing God, re-creating her so that she was an instrument of revenge, like the Estella whom Pip loved so desperately. But I knew girls and women whose sorrows and angers made them glow for me, drew me to them, and get burned because the glow was from some emotional fire. There is a sorrow in Dickens's Estella that is romantic and profound; it reverberates in male readers, who wish to possess her, and in female readers, who wish to wield that power. And that novel of education, acquisition, growth, and accretion is also one of the great novels of loss. Estella is about loss. Marcus loves and knows he must lose, and lose himself to, his Estella. And as she is the instrument of Miss Havisham's punishment of the world in Great Expectations, she is the instrument for Marcus of his own punishment in Closing Arguments. I named my character Estella as a salute to Dickens, whose work I revere, and as a salute to the women I knew who were creatures of sorrow and loss, and as an acknowledgment of loss itself as part of the experience of romantic love.
KN: You obviously invested much time and care in pinpointing the accuracy of detail in the courtroom and in the jungle. How important is research to your fiction?
FB: Research: I love it. It keeps me from having to do the tough work of writing the book. I live in the library, I wander along maps, I drive or fly with Judy--she has the family sense of direction--to look at places where I will locate certain events. Finally, I'm filled with facts--or filled with enough, anyway, to start. I then ventriloquize the characters in my book as they live on the landscape that is both actual and imagined. I believe in the physical actuality of my characters' worlds so that my reader will find them plausible. I visited a courthouse not unlike the one I describe in Closing Arguments. Judy took photographs of it so that I might see it as I wrote. I have always read a lot about Vietnam, but I wanted to know the airplane Marcus recalls flying in, and to know the countryside into which he plummeted when his plane was brought down. And I wanted to honor the physical truths of the war that was so cruel to so many; it was a way of honoring the wounded and distressed and dead of that conflict-- to get its details right. Writers who are friends whom I admire, Toby Wolff and Tim O'Brien, served there; Ward Just, with his notebook and camera, lived under fire there. You honor the people who were there by at least observing with some accuracy the small physical truths of their service to us.
KN: Do you ever find that desire for accuracy to be an obstacle in terms of creating fiction?
FB: I try to get the physical detail and historical research right-- whether I am writing about Melville in my native New York City, or about characters living in the landscape of upstate New York. But I find it important not to confuse physical accuracy--which is part homage, part a craftsman's desire to achieve plausibility--with psychological truth. I reserve to myself the right to make the characters in their place do what I need them to do. I have to trust my conscience--and it is a wrathful and merciless conscience--to see that I am not merely writing something self-aggrandizing because I like to play God (which is a role available to writers). I insist that I serve my characters and my readers. I want to honor them. I want to show them something entertaining, convincing, true-feeling. I cannot do any of this if I am cavorting about in praise of myself. The novels are for them, about them, in service of them.
KN: How do you feel about Closing Arguments in terms of your other work? Did you enjoy writing these characters, their stories?
FB: I think that Closing Arguments marks the beginning of a concentration by me on first-person narratives that have in com-mon an increasing darkness of vision, and a craftsman's interest in seeing what I can do with aspects of first-person storytelling; yet the focus remains on Marcus's concern for "the innocent," or "the undefended." And while that concern, I've been told, runs through my work, it's my feeling that the heat and pitch and overall urgency of that concern comes to the fore, as maybe not in the past, with Closing Arguments, then Girls, then The Night Inspector. In the case of Closing Arguments, I did not "enjoy" the writing. I didn't like living inside of such conflict, and my characters' darknesses frightened me--for I knew that if I could invent them, then I had some, maybe much, of them inside myself. Still, I was drawn to write that novel, and I wanted to write it well. I also knew that if I gave myself an excuse, any kind of pause, I might well find ways of not returning to the cruel psychic countryside of the book. So, as I got close to being done, Judy--my dear enabler--and I drew up the moat: we visited no one from May through September of the year I turned the book in; we permitted none of our friends to visit with us, and that period was like being in a foreign country without its language. We spoke to ourselves, and I spoke with my characters, and the book made its way forward to the last page. I'm glad I worked that way, in that profound immersion, because I think I wrote it truly. I think the novel is as faithful to Marcus, to his children, to Rochelle, to Estella as I could make it. I brought such troubles down upon them; the very least I could do was give them all of my devotion.