Photo credit: Curt White
Describe your latest book.
As Henry Fielding
would have put it, Lacking Character
is a novel: a comic epic poem in prose. It is a book about nothing much more than its own happy self-development. No Trump, no pedophiles, no climate change. It is, as the French say (and I have to say it as the French say it because English has no equivalent, sadly and revealingly), a jeu d’esprit
, the play of spirit.
It seems as if we are in a moment where novels, and books in general, take a fairly predictable form: rehearsals of trauma, or “catastrophe practice,” as Nicholas Mosley
put it. I’ve contributed to that body of work myself, and more than once, in both fiction and nonfiction. But this book is my "Ode to Joy," to invoke Beethoven, because it is so much about the freedom that the Romantics discovered in play.
I begin my tale by taking the opening scene from a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann
, in which a man comes to a house in the middle of the night and pounds on the door. My protagonist, Percy, claims that he has a story to tell that is both “obscure and appalling.” And off we go in the time-honored mode of the storyteller — improvising, laughing, and generally appealing to the reader to join in the work of freedom.
The book’s only meaning, or only meaning that I am willing to cop to, is the great Romantic phrase: “You are free, so live like it.”
What was your favorite book as a child?
I don’t know that I had a favorite book, but I did have a most memorable book: Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans
. I was probably around 12 years old when I read it. I remember loving the characters, especially Chingachgook and Uncas, Chingachgook’s son. I liked Uncas, really identified with him as a son, but I had no idea that characters in novels could die. His death, falling on me from out of the pages, scared me. I felt tricked and betrayed.
You, Novel, made me love someone and then killed him! Not fair! It was my first literary scandal.
When did you know you were a writer?
I know exactly when that was. I was in the fifth grade at San Lorenzo Elementary School. Our teacher had assigned the following homework: write a story and read it to class the next day. That must’ve been about the same time that I was reading The Last of the Mohicans
because I wrote a war story set in a forest where the combatants fire muskets. My comrades and I had taken shelter in a cabin in the woods and coming toward us were “Rebels.” And then I wrote something that made me fall in love with language. I wrote: “He fired his musket and sank a Minni ball in the rebel’s chest.” Something like that.
But Minni ball. Sank a Minni ball. Sank a Minni ball in his chest.
Many years later, I read that when Joseph Conrad
was asked for his favorite phrase in English, he replied, “Oaken barrel.” For him it had a kind of Anglo-Saxon sturdiness about it. A firmness. A finality. Its sound came from the throat and chest and suggested something from the deepest earth. Similarly, "Minni ball" had an almost erotic pull for me. The word has never been replaced in my heart. No, not even when Wallace Stevens
What does your writing workspace look like?
It’s a little L-shaped nook off to the side of an open living space. The house has a very open layout, almost like a loft space. So the kitchen and dining room and living room are all part of the same space. But off of this open space are a couple of very small, private nooks, one of which I claimed for myself. There is actually an architectural theory for this layout called Pattern Language. But the reason I know it’s my writing workspace is because my 1880s Eastlake platform rocking chair is in it.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
The freedom to create the world rather than being a creature of it.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
The greatest surprise I’ve had in recent years has been Paul Scott’s four-volume novel, The Raj Quartet
. Shockingly good mid-20th-century British realism. Start with The Jewel in the Crown
and bliss out. Also grossly neglected is Stephen Paul Martin, a wholly original contemporary. Start with The Ace of Lightning
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I spend most of my days with three parrots sitting on me. They claim to be muses, but I have doubts about that, unless they want me to write a novel titled Good Girl
or Go Poopy
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
When I was an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, I had a summer job making redwood steps for mobile homes in Walnut Creek. I worked for Bill the Step Man for $1.25/hour. I can still impress workers with my dexterity using a radial arm saw. Actually, they’re impressed that I know what a radial arm saw is. My constant thought then was, “They cut down redwood trees to make this shit?”
What scares you the most as a writer?
Nothing original. Just the gnawing dread of not having another idea, ever. That was the only truly scary thing in The Shining
: “all work and no play,” etc., over and over. I don’t mean writer’s block. I’m talking about the end of the writer’s persona, so lovingly developed decade after decade, elaborated upon endlessly, filliped sharply, admired at perigee, with charming caryatids set in the porticoes, yammering down at me.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
The title would be Dionysus Is Weeping
. It’s about growing up in a California suburb in the ’50s, with redneck parents who think they still live in Kansas.
I don’t have the subtitle, but here’s the epigraph: “…still a child, living still in a canary-yellow, large, cold house where they were preparing me and hundreds of other children for secure nonexistence as adult dummies, into which all my coevals turned without effort or pain.” — Vladimir Nabokov
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.” — James Joyce, Ulysses
, perhaps channeling Shakespeare’s Prospero.
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
Actually, I’m fond of the first sentence of Lacking Character
. I like its delicious openness to narrative possibility: “What follows is a story of contagion, and it begins, as all such stories must, with a message both obscure and appalling.”
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t recall getting much advice. I wanted to go to college, live in San Francisco, read books, and no one said I shouldn’t, but that was before the era of crushing student debt. My tuition was paid by the state, and my share of rent was $45 per month to live on Oak Street, right off the panhandle. My dad said I should apprentice to a plumber so that I could make money after college, but that was a nonstarter. One of my professors, with whom I played chess, once advised me not to take chess seriously until I was sure there was nothing important left to do. That seemed like good advice. I played chess with David Foster Wallace
once, after waffles at my house in Illinois, but other than that I haven’t played since.
My Top 5 Books That Made Me the Writer I Am Today.
Okay, understand that this list is of the books that allowed me to become the writer that I am. It is the tradition of comic, anti-mimetic play. I love these books, but mostly I’m grateful that they existed when I needed them.
Gargantua and Pantagruel
by Laurence Sterne
by Flann O'Brien
Aberration of Starlight
by Gilbert Sorrentino
÷ ÷ ÷
has published seven earlier books of fiction, including Memories of My Father Watching TV
. His nonfiction includes The Middle Mind
, The Science Delusion
, and We, Robots
. His essays have appeared in Harper’s
, the Village Voice
, and Playboy