The author of such popular and provocative novels as The Mezzanine and The Fermata - not to mention one of the most honest, fascinating, first-person accounts of writing I know, U&I - Nicholson Baker found himself thrust into the national spotlight when Kenneth Starr revealed that a famous former intern had given America's President a copy of Baker's 1992 erotic classic, Vox. With his latest novel, The Everlasting Story of Nory, Baker continues to expand his literary turf, focusing his unique, digressive style on a precocious nine year old girl.
Nory, an American, is going to school in England for a year. Baker's new novel charts the adventurous course of her busy, animated mind in this strange new setting. Nory wants to be a dentist - or a designer of pop-up books, depending when you ask. She's not quite ready to obsess about career choices. No, there are plenty of equally critical ideas crowding her mind, like stuff about dung beetles and cows with pointed teeth.
Sounds like strange territory for an author forever to be associated with a national sex scandal, right? Not entirely. The leap from Vox to Nory isn't as great as it first appears.
"The riskiest thing now is something that edges on sentimentality," Baker explained. "That's the taboo. But that's also what gives it the excitement. Can you be true to a person whose life isn't damaged? Who isn't illuminating bad things about adults, but just having a fairly normal kid's life? Can you treat that complexity in a way that's interesting? I tried to, and I guess I think I did."
Baker: It was a lot of fun to write this book [The Everlasting Story of Nory]. I hope that I captured some of the moral complexities of one kid's life.
DW: Your books are clearly fiction, but you focus so closely within the minds of your characters.
Baker: Some people just have an urge to confess things, some kind of misplaced truthfulness. You want to say the things that people haven't said. And people have said a lot of things.
DW: What impressed me about Vox was the continuous motion that keeps it going, the momentum. Though obviously you didn't write it in a sitting, the whole novel is one extended conversation.
Baker: The idea was to have one character fizzle out with a story and yet have someone else there who'd take it up, turn it, and maybe even twist it away from the intention of the person who started. It becomes antiphonal. The characters were competing with each other in a way, showing off. And of course they're both really me.
Or I'd ask my wife questions, that's the sort of thing writers do. The sordid truth is you walk out of your office and say, "Well, what would you say if I said this or that?" and your wife says, "No, I wouldn't say that." Then I tell her, "Thank you," and walk back into my office.
DW: You mention your daughter as the source for much of the new novel.
Baker: Nory is based on in-depth interviews with this other human being, yes. And she was pretty tolerant about that. I wrote down what she said, then put it through my own manipulations and adjustments.
DW: How conscious is she of all this? How old is she?
Baker: She was nine. This happened in real time. I picked her up from school, interviewed her about what happened that day, wrote a scene the next day. Picked her up, interviewed her, wrote a scene. So I didn't know how the book would end up because I didn't know how her experience in this English school would end up. She knew at the time that this was a book about her, more or less. She hasn't read it cover to cover, but she has read the parts that she more or less made up. It's a collaborative kind of work.
DW: Was it more satisfying, working so closely with your daughter? What made you decide to try that?
Baker: The riskiest thing now isn't to do something evil, or graphically sexual. The riskiest thing now is something that edges on sentimentality. That's the taboo. But that's also what gives it the excitement. Can you be true to a person whose life isn't damaged? Who isn't illuminating bad things about adults? Who's just having a fairly normal kid's life - can you treat that complexity in a way that's interesting? I tried to, and I guess I think I did.
DW: It's different than ninety-nine percent of the novels you're going to find on the shelves, and that can only be a good thing, I think.
Baker: Well, the thing that makes it similar to my earlier books. . . It's similar to Vox in that the characters made up words - they were trying to come up with a new language for a very familiar subject - and in this one too I was interested in the neologisms and oddities of language that the character had. I would hear something interesting and write it down.
Some people who read the book seemed to think that it wasn't possible for this to be a nine-year old mind, but that's because the nine-year old minds we're given in fiction aren't true ones. It's not because Nory is an extraordinary character. We're given smart-aleck kids whom I don't think are true to the way kids really are. The only way you can write about someone who's nine is by listening to the way they think.
DW: You've written about protecting card catalogues from destruction and you've actively campaigned to save old books from the trash heap. It seems in that context that Nory is a paper or a physical record of this life, your daughter's, at this time.
Baker: It makes me unhappy when certain things change or things are superceded. Her personality...there's no way you can be nine forever. There's a sense of mortality in that each phase of a personality involves a huge loss of an earlier phase. Her vocabulary will change completely. She won't have the same words.
Card catalogues; things, too. Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled. I always think, Thank God it's still hanging there, even though people don't really buy it for the popcorn anymore - maybe they never did - but now it's a nostalgia item. It was like a Pullman car when people rode the train. Now people only ride the train on special occasions. So I'm sad about Jiffy Pop.
DW: You could hoard a whole bunch.
Baker: I do, or I have, actually. I have one. I packed it in a box, but it got all crumpled. Apparently there's a dish of vegetable oil in the bottom there, and once you crumple the bottom you're not going to get an even heating surface. So there are losses there, too.
I wrote a book about my obsession with Updike [U&I]. When you're an aspiring writer you have a certain view of the literary universe, and if you write a few more books that view is completely gone. There's no way to resurrect it. The only way to write about that accurately is when it's happening. So there is a feeling of things passing that worries me a lot. I want to stop time and get things down on paper before they've flown off like a flock of starlings.
DW: What fascinates me about U&I is that you resisted your urge to go back and read all of Updike's books. That would have been the most obvious, most conventional thing to do. Being afraid that you'd come off wrong. But it's so much more interesting to read your writerly perspective rather than a scholarly perspective.
Baker: The idea is, What do you really think about a writer? You ask yourself, What do you really think about Gunter Grass? You probably have an opinion right now. But it would be completely distorted if you went back and reread The Tin Drum. All these little enthusiasms I've been through... is it a male thing to focus on one thing and include all the world in your tight focus, then just check that thing off, be done with it, and focus on something else? You try to include everything else in the world by implication, staying true to your focus. Then you check that subject off. I don't know if it's a good thing or not.
DW: It seems like a perfect temperament for a writer. When you finish something, you're ready to move onto something new.
Baker: I wish that I could be like P.G. Wodehouse or something. It seems to have given him pleasure to have roughly the same plot each time. And slight variations. Like Mozart or something. Sub-dominant chords. It seems like a healthier way to approach writing, to make small variations each time. And maybe over thirty years, from the first book to the last book, there's a considerable movement. But my way seems to be to completely turn the telescope in another direction. It doesn't seem like the way a pro would do it.
DW: Are you still worried about being a pro at this point? Still questioning yourself in that regard?
Baker: Don't you think most writers are secretly worried that they're not really writers? That it's all been happenstance, something came together randomly, the letters came together, and they and won't coalesce ever again?
DW: But you could make the opposite argument that your career has developed in a Wodehouse sort of way. You have that fascination with detail and the digressive style which lets you incorporate huge ideas in small fields. So your focus changes, but you keep the style, which itself has developed and evolved.
Baker: That's a better way to look at it.
DW: I'm just trying to put a positive spin on it.
Baker: Well, I certainly don't feel tortured in any way.
DW: It's ten years since you started U&I. Who are you reading now?
Baker: I still very much admire Updike. I went through a Kipling jag recently. He's a really good poet. Right now I'm writing a long thing about libraries so I've been reading obscure tidbits, pieces of the story I'm telling. I've really forgotten what literature is. I carry around an Anthology of English prose edited by Peacock, 1903. I find it reassuring, the onionskin. The Indians invented onionskin, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is printed on onionskin so they should know. I'm protective of my own enthusiasms. But I've lost touch with contemporary American fiction.
DW: You mention in U&I that you're protective of your reading. You want to be able to read what you want, when you want, and not be bound by obligation. Do you tend to finish everything you read or do you jump around?
Baker: I don't. I probably should more than I do, but there's an infinite amount of stuff to read and only a little time to read it. I think that you can have a valuable aesthetic experience having read thirty pages of a book. Often the feeling of setting out on a book is the best thing about it. So I read around.
I read a lot to make sure I'm not encroaching on someone's subject or that what I'm doing is different than someone else. It's not a good feeling to be duplicating or imitating someone. It's scary. Terrifying.
DW: When you're writing a story, then, do you purposely distance yourself from works that have touched upon similar themes?
Baker: You usually have to confront it and make sure you won't be encroaching. It turns out most of the time you're worried about something that isn't really that close. That was one of the things that was hardest to do in U&I: to list the other works of nonfiction or fiction that seemed close to what I was doing. I listed Flaubert's Parrot and a couple of other things like that, things that were in my mind. And I wanted my book to be as different as possible, but I was conscious of the fact that I was in the same territory as others who had come before.
It was hard to type that list. And sometimes when I read a book that I feel, perhaps wrongly, has been mildly influenced by U&I, I wish that the author had presented a similar list of immediate influences instead of recognizing only distant writers. Because you know they're lying. You have to sample the writers around you. Even if you do it like me, kind of dilettantishly. I'm still taking pH readings here and there. I'm always aware of this Milky Way of book-reviewable people that are out there. Then of course all writers have their heroes, like Samuel Johnson, but those are easy to cite. You're not confessing a secret.
Dave Weich interviewed Nicholson Baker prior to his appearance at Powell's City of Books, April 28, 1999.
÷ ÷ ÷
Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State