Q: How does one come to write a collection of stories?
A: Well, they acrue, over time. Here’s an account, as an example, of how I came to write one of the eleven collected:
My fascination with the French Revolution and, more specifically, with the Reign of Terror began with either my first viewing of MGM’s version of A Tale of Two Cities, or, more likely, with the Classics Illustrated version (#139, In the Reign of Terror, with a cover that featured a Clu Gulager-like aristocrat in the foreground glancing apprehensively over his shoulder at a sans-culotte menacing him with a club.) But it never occurred to me to write about that fascination, perhaps because I couldn’t imagine myself someday reading anything aloud that would force me to pronounce French. But one day while rambling through a particularly good used book store—Monroe Street Books, in Middlebury, Vermont, if you find yourself in the area—I came across the kind of title that always appeals to the twelve year-old in me: Legacy of Death. The author was Barbara Levy, and the subtitle turned out to be The Remarkable Saga of the Sanson Family, Who Served as Executioners of France for Seven Generations. Now there was a family I wanted to know more about. One of those generations turned out to feature the man who ended up at the center of my story, a man whose life and profession, as the book sketched them in, seemed so stunning to me that I found myself very much wanting to try to imagine it more fully, despite the obvious difficulties involved in doing so. Months of ghoulish research followed. (My wife Karen, herself a writer, likes to complain that I’m the only person she knows who’ll take a history of the guillotine along as beach reading.) The result was the story “Sans Farine.”
Q: Related to that, in the Acknowledgments you list over sixty books or articles that helped with this collection. Do you always read so much for your writing?
A: In a lot of cases my stories wouldn’t have come to be without some of those books and articles. I read a huge amount, initially just because something fascinates me, and as I’m reading, I’m trying to read receptively; that is, I’m trying to be alert to small but significant stirrings of affect, or some kind of quiet charge inside me: whatever it is in the material that might make it more than usually compelling, and affecting, to me. I don’t need, initially, to be able to articulate to myself fully what that is; I just need to have registered it on some level. Once I think I’ve identified something like that (and it hardly happens all the time; often I’ll do a huge amount of reading on one subject, and nothing will come of it, other than my own pleasure) my reading changes, and I start approaching the material as though researching a subject: i.e., with some notion of the sorts of gaps I’d need to fill in if I were going to attempt to recreate the illusion of a world like the one about which I’m reading. I certainly, in other words, end up writing stories because of things I’ve read. But those things are almost always moments in which human beings have found themselves in extraordinarily difficult, and memorable, positions that resonate with me, personally, in emotional terms. In other words, zeppelins themselves don’t get me going; it’s the position in which a zeppelin can place somebody that generates the initial impulse for a story.
Q: In this wonderful new collection, there are many stories, or themes within the stories, that deal with the relationship between brothers and/or the friendship and loyalty among men. Is this something you wanted to explore in particular and are there connections to your life, or your relationship to your brother?
A: There are. I think the brother relationship in general is intensely useful to me for the way it puts so much pressure on our sense of what it means to love someone unconditionally, and especially on the issues of connection and samaritanism. My brother and I (he’s five years older) have always been close, and separate, and that’s been a great source of emotional complexity and intensity in my psychic life. One of the great traumas in my family’s experience (and my family’s been mostly very lucky in that regard) was his institutionalization when he was about 16. It was an event that crystallized for me concrete forms for the kinds of issues—how much should one help? what constitutes help?—that always swirl around crucial family relationships.
Q: Another of your themes seems to be about adventure or the folly of adventure, such as in “Hadrian’s Wall,” “The First South Central Australian Expedition,” and “Ancestral Legacies” (about Nazi’s in search of the mythic Yeti). Is it wanderlust or something else you’re interested in, when you embark on these journeys?
A: Not wanderlust so much as what’s for me the indivisible pairing of contrary emotions: I find that sort of striving impossibly admirable, and moving, and also impossibly stupid, and selfish. It produces in me the kind of complicated feeling that those who are moved by Tennyson’s poem about the Light Brigade might feel, I suppose.
Q: One of your stories deals with the brutality of boys playing varsity football in high school. Did you ever play and was it as frightening and painful as it comes across in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak?”
A: I did play football, though nowhere near at that level. And the higher the level, the higher the level of ferocity. Anyone who’s been near the field during a Division I college football game, never mind a pro game, can tell you that.
Q: You have an amazing ability to get inside the heads of your characters/narrators, who are often anguished and unsure of themselves but smart and amusing observers of what’s around them, to the point where the reader feels great empathy with them, even while perhaps laughing at their misfortune. Is this type of struggling first-person narrator one you seek out for a reason?
A: Very much so, I think. I’m drawn to that situation in which we know better and still fail to live up to our best or preferred sense of ourselves. That sort of figure at which writers like Robert Stone excel: protagonists who are very, very smart, and still manage to fuck up in spectacular ways.
Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a fiction writer?
A: In third or fourth grade, I found myself writing stories, almost exclusively about monsters: mostly variations on the Universal or silent film monsters, nearly all of which I’d seen on TV by that point. My family tended toward lax supervision. The nuns—I went to Catholic school until junior high—were happy to allow me to write, and write about anything, as long as I did it on my own time. So in English I’d finish diagramming sentences and go back to chapter 3 of whatever I was writing. I drew the covers, as well. I remember Sister Justine looking blankly at one entitled “All That Blood.” I never thought I would be a writer, necessarily. My secret plan was to write and then to hope that people gave me food. My ambition had always been to be a veterinarian, until I realized that they had responsibilities beyond playing with puppies or giving old dogs treats.
Q: When did you first begin getting stories published?
A: I began publishing short stories as an undergraduate, with the Atlantic Monthly and Redbook. I was too clueless to be surprised by that success, or to understand how unusual it was. I then worked with John Hawkes when receiving my MFA from Brown University, and it was Jack who helped me understand just how much I was interested in using realism to torque the reader’s ordinary sense of the real.
Q: How central an influence has film been on your work?
A: My characters often began or begin in the real world, and then find themselves in the midst of extremities: psychic, dreamlike, harrowing. The previously mentioned Jack Hawkes, among all of the other ways in which he helped me, also encouraged me to yoke together more firmly the high and low cultural antecedents for my projects. And like many of my generation, I’d grown up on movies. The formal model of popular film had had a fundamental effect on how I constructed narrative. (And still does, of course. There are all sorts of ways in which film has directly and indirectly showed itself in my fiction, besides Nosferatu, my fifth novel. I remember conceiving of the end of Paper Doll, my second—an ending which involved the massive and catastrophic 8th Air Force attack on Schweinfurt, Germany—in cinematic terms: what would you see at this point? Where would the camera be placed for this? There’s a way in which film pushes one towards both the viscerally visual and the kinetic. As opposed to, say, the intricately expositional, or ruminative. At other times—in a short story like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for example—film has given me not only my governing metaphors, but also my protagonists.) Jack helped me to understand—and to make more conscious use of—those other antecedents for the kind of work I wanted to do: folk tales, myth, the projects of the surrealists, and, of course, that loose community of writers of which he was a part that became known, in the 60’s and 70’s, as the fabulists.
Q: What other sorts of subjects tend to come up when you’re interviewed?
A: The size of my readership. (It’s usually mentioned delicately, and even generously, through the employment of terms like ‘a writer’s writer.’) It may be that one of the factors that gets in the way of a bigger readership is an aspect of my work that countless reviewers have mentioned, occasionally with surprising peevishness: how different all of my fictions are, and how hard it is to decide exactly what kind of fiction I write. It may be that without that kind of categorization, it’s hard for buyers—whether they’re ordinary readers or judging panels—to know what they’re getting. I’m not the Catholic guy or the Po-Mo guy or the Historical Guy or the whatever guy. But there’s not much to be gained in speculating in that regard. Of course, I lament reaching fewer people than I would hope to reach. But I also remind myself how fortunate I am: because every so often the world provides me with sufficient time and opportunity, and lets me do the thing I want most to do.
Q: You teach (and are very popular doing so) writing and film at Williams College. Does teaching others about writing inspire or challenge you at all about your own writing?
A: Teaching is not just a way of getting flexible hours and good benefits, it turns out. Having to teach other works—especially works you’ve always loved—is a wonderful way of disciplining your mind. We always tell our students that we learn how to revise our own work by breaking down how others have constructed theirs. That holds for the teachers, too.
Q: And the question put to every writer, though you may be tired of this one, what are you working on next?
A: I’ve always got a pile of odd books or clippings on my desk that I mean to get to. As one mystified librarian asked me, having checked through yet another pile of esoteric books in a discipline entirely different from my last one: “Can I ask you a question? What is it you do?” I should have answered her, “I play around. And every so often the world pays me for that.”