Allan Gurganus is the author of two novels, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tell All and Plays Well With Others, and a collection of short stories, White People. His most recent work is a volume of four novellas, The Practical Heart. The title novella in that collection (which also includes Preservation News, He’s One, Too and Saint Monster) won a National Magazine Prize when it appeared in Harper’s magazine. He has taught at Stanford University, Duke University and the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and Sarah Lawrence College. Gurganus has won numerous awards and his stories have been anthologized in the current O Henry Prize collection and the Best American Short Stories 2001. His writing is also represented in the Norton Anthology of American Short Fiction. Allan Gurganus was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He lives in North Carolina and is currently at work on his next novel, An Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church. This is his second conversation with Robert Birnbaum.
Robert Birnbaum: Tell me about the anti-Jesse Helms organization you are a member of?
Allan Gurganus: Writers Against Jesse Helms. I co-founded it in 1990. We were just livid at the thought of his continuing for one more year and here it is twelve years later. But, nature does have its compensations, it’s dragging me kicking to the grave, but he’s going sooner than I am. He’s, I think, lost a little of the vinegar and the rage, but every time you begin to try to make him warm and fuzzy, he’ll come out with some statement that is so egregious and so homophobic and so inherently racist and xenophobic — it’s not even xenophobia, it’s — he just hates people, it’s not just gay people or black people, it’s just people.
RB: So what happens to the organization now that he is retiring?
AG: I’m afraid we’ll be Writers Against Liddy Dole. That’s the next step. It looks like she is coming in. In a weird way, Helms is a much more authentic human being than she is. She’s a privileged kid who decided, arbitrarily, to run for office. I ran into an old man in Salisbury, her hometown, who’d seen it all and I said, “Did you know Liddy Dole coming up?”
And he said, “Oh yeah.”
“What was her story?”
“She was always running for something.”
And she’s never stopped. And never stopped long enough to ask, who am I and what do I really believe? It’s just like orange are the power suits and if you can mike me I’ll walk off the podium and amaze everybody. She’s an Avon lady.
RB: Will she change her hair?
AG: I haven’t keep up, but I’m sure it’s going to be whipping around. It may be karmic destiny that she was going to announce her candidacy on Sept. 11 and had to reschedule. Helms at least had a kind of galvanizing influence on people. You can get money and you can get people excited and he’s always good copy in the most horrible way. What’s not understood is that the reason he’s been elected for the last ten years is that people from New Jersey are retiring in North Carolina and the old tabaccky farmers are dying off. The Volvo crowd with the silver hair and looking out for the great grand children’s inheritance are voting in Jesse Helms and have made that happen. All the vilification of the south is continuing. It’s pretty hollow now.
RB: There is an Association of Southern Writers?
AG: There is. Sort of like a Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a horrifying thought. I went to one meeting in Chattanooga to be inducted. One of the writers — he hadn’t been inducted yet but he was clearly bucking for that — came through the buffet line with a rack of venison he had cooked in the parking lot and basted with thousand island dressing, used wood chips that he found behind the dumpster. I mean, I thought, “Jesus god, I don’t think I can take it, you know.”
RB: We’re not naming any names?
AG: No. You wouldn’t know him. But it’s sort of the James Dickey vein, the wild macho man from the woods. There’s one of each. There’s a genteel lady who is fine until you get that fourth daiquiri into her and then jump back. It’s a wonderful crowd. It’s a wonderful group of people.
RB: How old is the organization?
AG: I think it was founded by Robert Penn Warren in the ’40s or ’50s. It’s a very particular society. Sort of like the International Dry Cleaners Hall of Fame. It’s a very particular and local thing. But some very wonderful people have belonged. You would be a crazy person not to be rejoicing everyday not to have been born in the south. The sheer density of narrative, the sheer capacity for telling amusing stories, not just by people that are paid to write, but people who are earning a living in service stations and who amuse themselves…
RB: Would you have said this ten years ago?
AG: I think so.
RB: I mean would you have said this? I don’t think that the facts have changed. Part of what is driving this question is the reticence and even the sense of inferiority that I have seen exhibited by some southern writers. I have rarely heard anyone proudly announce…
AG: If I had been born in Akron, I don’t know what I’d be writing. I’d probably be writing about the Goodyear dealership and how Daddy got it away from the second-in-command…I don’t know. But to have grown up…we’ve talked about this before…to have grown up in a house where four generations could walk through the door at any moment. You literally hear footfalls. And you don’t know whether the next person through that door is going to be black or white or ancient or infantile. Or a neighbor or a bible salesman or Flannery O’Connor on crutches. You just don’t know who is coming through the door. And that makes for interest narratively. And it also gives you that sense, even if your family, like mine is old fashioned merchant family stock it’s not exactly that we are the Cabots or the Lowells. We just owned that patch for a long time and paid our club dues and turned up at church and knew where we were going to be buried. Over enough generations, that really amounts to something. For a story teller it gives you a tremendous kind of fossil fuel, a tremendous sense of material and a tremendous kind of trajectory. It’s not that you are endlessly telling the story of your own family, but it gives a sense that time is inherently dramatic. That you have absolute access to the past, including fooling around with it and pushing and pulling it and shaping it and ignoring it. What I think America now feels, all of the USA, is something that I grew up feeling and knowing, which was that history is a daily force. We knew this because we lived with the burned monuments that Sherman had left behind. And that the sense that the world is a battle field and is important because people died here. That is also a tremendous advantage for a writer. Plus the church is still extremely important. I live between two churches…I’m such a pagan. I sleep a little deeper when I hear those church bells go off on Sunday morning and roll over and scratch and do something lascivious, if possible. It does inform the meter of the language and the King James Bible is still mother’s milk and I still know every single verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and many a hymn. And those play in the work in a profound way, after a while.
RB: Not to dwell excessively on this matter of regionalism, but some people say you can’t throw a stone in North Carolina without hitting a writer. Why is that?
AG: Part of the prosaic answer, apart from the drinking water, is the schools are really good. The schools have traditionally been very good. Including the oldest state university in the country and so people who are talented from farms could go to school for three hundred dollars a year. Now the kids who didn’t get into Princeton want to go to Chapel Hill because it’s a gorgeous campus and still a fairly good school. It’s not the Deep South. Deep South is like deep trouble. We are all living with moderate amounts of huge trouble but it’s like the racial question…has always had sane people saying, “Let’s think about this and let’s make a citizens’ committee and let’s talk it out”…as opposed to absolute retrenchment. This is the way it’s been done…I was just in Mississippi and they sent a black driver — a Denzel Washington type, very distinguished — with a black Lincoln and I was in the back seat and actually went to sleep. And I woke up as every time he was about to pass a car, this battered old van would just pull out and block his path with out signaling. Like in the Wild West, just trying to run him off the road. And I said, “What is going on?” He said. “This has happened for forty minutes.” I sat up and the windows were kind of smoky and as soon as we passed this van, — there was this red neck white guy from Louisiana, kind of Cajun with a goatee, looking like he was missing teeth and 40 IQ points — but when he saw me in the back seat, he gave this big grin because suddenly it was not this successful black man with a Ph.D., it was just a chauffeur. Then he could let us go because it was okay. This happened last week. We are not talking 1938 here. I was scared and my impulse was to sit in the front seat with the driver.
RB: This is an ambitious tour for you, isn’t it?
AG: Yeah, all over the place. I am all over the map — my subject matter starts in the south — and then gets out. I get to get out too, periodically. It’s not wine that can’t travel far from the vineyard. I hope. Because it’s in many languages and you want to tell stories that matter to as many people as possible. In language that’s…the language matters immensely to me. Nobody ever talks about language anymore. People talk about gold records and nobody talks about music anymore.
RB: This book was to be published last winter, why wasn’t it?
AG: I was working on the last novella, Saint Monster.
RB: And it didn’t come out easily?
AG: They very rarely do. What that involves for me is cutting and convincing myself that everything I need is there already. The kid goes away to boarding school after the death of his father and I had a whole novella length passage at the boarding school. Which was wonderful stuff…
RB: As long as you brought it up — elsewhere you quote Peter Taylor’s definition of a novella — can you be more specific about what a novella is? Why isn’t Saint Monster a novel?
AG: It’s a big novella. A writer friend of mine was talking about — in a school to eight year olds, about a novella and a girl raised her hand and said, “M’am, is a novella a novel written by a girl?” Randell Jarrell’s definition of a novella is a work of a certain length with something wrong with it. Taylor says, “It’s a work you can pick up at dinner time after you have washed the dishes and finish just as you go to bed.” At least three of these four, that’s true of. I intended all of them to be read the way you eat a plate of oysters. All at once. It should be that kind of single sitting…a completely satisfying experience.
RB: That seems more about the reading than the writing.
AG: It’s very much written to be read and very much written to be read aloud and all at once. You do that by cutting out the secondary characters and the subplots. What I really love as a reader is just to feel that sense of obsessive investigation that builds and culminates and really illuminates. I don’t just want to do ABC, I want to do ADJZBC1. That’s why it takes me much longer to write a book than some of my colleagues, who pop out one a year. I feel that I am growing as a writer. I’m 54 and I feel I have really just gotten started. That’s a very exciting sensation.
RB: I have to ask. Perhaps, I didn’t read Saint Monster carefully enough, but I couldn’t decide Clyde Sr.’s race. All the evidence points to him being black but the mother/wife says no…
AG: The mother of the narrator never really knew. She assumed he was white but didn’t really care. She thought he was amusing and adored her and he was sexy and it was fun while it lasted.
RB: She was a very smart woman.
AG: She’s very smart. And I think to the naked eye the thing that was most arresting about him was not his skin tone but his extraordinary ugliness. As is said in the book, he’s like a basset hound he’s so ugly he’s cute. He played on it and it became a kind of distraction. I think the way that O.J. Simpson thinks he didn’t cut his wife’s head off, that we are all capable of convincing ourselves of anything we want. All four of the novellas are very much about people who have found an obsession that organizes life for them and who then wind up sacrificing life to protect the obsession they commence to protect them from life. Which is an allegory for what art does, in a way. It shields us and it sometimes cuts us off. But it’s a kind of magic that we all require and I really respect the people who don’t always turn to organized religion or country club membership or all the conventional routes to security and peace. People who make up their own system seem to me the ones that are most admirable. I really want to believe whatever mythology I put together for myself aesthetically, ethically and personally will see me through to my death. If it can’t do that, then I’ve been barking up the wrong tree all along.
RB: Can’t carry you through to your death?
AG: I want it to see me through. My vision of what comes once your eyes are closed is pretty dark, I think. It’s how you get there I guess.
RB: You’ve written enough to be leaving a trail…
AG: It is a trail and for me that is a huge part of why I do this. I am a huge immortality queen from way back. If somebody came and said, “Allan, you are a sweetheart, but I have the card catalogue from the Library of Congress for the year 2045 and your ass ain’t in there.”… That’s very important to me. To already be in the Norton Anthology of American Literature is huge for me.
RB: Aren’t you in some O Henry and some Best American Short Story collections?
AG: Oh yeah and that’s a great pleasure. But that’s the reason we do this. It’s not just to…
AG: Why all of us do our work. Yeah, ‘we’ is dangerous. Mark Twain was always furious that Walt Whitman kept referring to we, we, we. He said, “I assume Mr. Whitman means himself and his tapeworm?” I’ll back off into the first person and say why I do this. Because it’s like a great thank you note at the end of your life if you can leave something behind or a house gift or a love song. That says this is the best I can figure out, this made sense at the time. I’ll take my chance in the Great Lottery and hope that this will pertain for people a hundred years from now. I look back on things I published in the 70’s and that 30 years ago and there are no name brands that date the piece. I was a kid but I knew…
RB: What’s Bret Ellis going to do?
AG: I know, it’s rough. But that’s the goal, to build something autonomous and will fly.
RB: You reread your work?
AG: I have looked at but I have a hard time rereading a lot of it. I think it’s a mistake. It’s like looking at your photographs when you were 25. You think, “Who was this baby?” The beauty of what I do is precisely that 25 year olds can’t do it. You have to have buried scores and scores of people.
RB: You managed to use that Jonathan Swift quote, “No wise man wants to be younger.” What a gem!
AG: My two favorite ages have been ten and fifty. They are weirdly alike. Ten, you are sort of smart as an adolescent, but you don’t have all the below-the-belt complications that are coming and the catapulting into sexuality and all that hugely volcanic stuff that’s gonna happen to you. You still got some kind of rational sense, but you are also extremely playful and as smart as you are going to be as an adult. And a 50, you’re sort of 35 — at least this is true of me, I’ve always had a lot of physical stamina — so I can do whatever I could do when I was younger. But I also have this long view. It’s like Moses looking into the Promised Land. And the Promised Land for those of us who are 50 is hoping to escape too many debilitating diseases that are up ahead. But what comes with it is a tremendous sense that moment is what you are really aspiring to. It’s not some grand future. If only I could XYZ. Well, here we are at this table with this room with this sunlight streaming through these windows. This is it. I had the horrible experience of losing an incredibly brilliant student at the World Trade Center, who was working as a temp. A hideous phrase. For one week. And had called everybody to say, “Look at the views and here I am.” He was getting a huge kick out of being a spy in this world. When the first tower was hit he was describing it in real time, on the computer, to friends. And suddenly, it stopped, because he was on the 102nd floor… I thought, how beautiful to spend the last second of your life describing something amazing and magnificent. He probably literally did not know what hit him. He has a book coming out next year. At least he saved some of it. Everybody right now is living in a state of grace — a state of “this is what I do have as opposed to this is what we’ve lost.” This sense of intrusion and empire undoing…
RB: You are saying that people are exhibiting a sense of appreciation?
AG: I was in New York and I have never seen people in New York looking each other in the eye and holding the subway door. I mean it only lasted two weeks, but my God that’s an eternity in New York. I once saw a traffic accident, a young mother with a kid in the front seat and her car just spun six or eight times and then came to a halt. And the police were running over to her and she was totally intent on going over her baby — her three-year old — just working every joint to see if he was all right. And when he was, she was just hysterical …she was holding, hugging him, laughing, just rejoicing and it was extremely beautiful. It was not disturbing. It was totally recognizable and I’m sure it lasted her for weeks or months or years, I hope. I have that sense about my life and my friend. Having this book come out, it couldn’t be appearing at a worst time. 150 friends had a party and I thought…
RB: Why is this the worst time for a book?
AG: Everybody is looking only at CNN and talking about international affairs. But you never know, you throw your bread on the water. Conrad said, “Every book, like every man, has a fate.” Even as the person who wrote the book and is doing his best to make it known, I know like a mother of twelve that they’ll get there in their own way.
RB: It’s too bad that there is this urgency to maximize sales at the time of publication as if books were like movies or records…
AG: The commercial fact is that they are only in the stores for six weeks now. And that’s why they send me from pillar to post to talk about it.
RB: Let’s talk a little bit about the book. What determined the order of the novellas?
AG: It’s intuitive. You sit there with them like pieces of broken glass in a stained-glass window and you hold them up side by side. I wanted it to be a kind of announcement of the theme and variation. All about history wished and history lived. And that’s extremely apropos for this moment. I wanted a woman to be in one and man in the other. It’s like arranging a dinner party. I wanted the most recent and the longest and the best to be at the end…
RB: When you wrote Plays Well With Others was it the best thing you wrote to date?
AG: It was a very important piece for me.
RB: What would it mean to say the ‘best’?
AG: It’s just what you feel most fervently for in a group of four pieces. And you tend to love the one you just delivered, the most. This book is my most formally perfect piece of work. I can’t do better. There is not a sentence in the book, if it were read to me, I couldn’t tell you what it had been before, what I changed it to and why I made it this way.
RB: So in your numerous public readings you don’t find yourself going, “Oh no.”
AG: Oh no, oh no. The only problem with reading is that these things are seventy pages long and your audience will not put up with that, so you have to cut it down. Even that is a kind of discipline. You realize that you know the material so well that you know which six moving parts have to be there in order to make the seventh work. So it’s like breaking down an organism that you can unravel in your sleep. You get to know the work in a whole different way, like a surgeon operating on his beloved. It’s the ultimate intimacy, in a way. To make a shape and have to change it. To read it aloud is the great payoff and in a room of 20 or 30 or 150 people to make the language return to sound waves and to think musically is a great pleasure.
RB: Do you read out loud when you are writing?
AG: I do, I read aloud a lot. It’s a great organizing principle. More writers should do it. And if they did, American prose would be a lot better than it is. Most American books are made with about as much care as most American Happy Meals are. There’s a lot of Styrofoam. There’s a lot of corn starch. If you read it aloud you are at least responsible for those sound waves in your own ear, and that’s a purifying exercise.
RB: When you started to write, did you have it in mind to do four novellas?
AG: I don’t even have it in mind that I’m going to do a collection of novellas. What I do is, I get up in the morning and I write the way a bird sings. The bird doesn’t say, “Just think, there’ll be the collected hits.” They just twitter, twitter, twitter and some of the twitters are better than others and you get clusters and you see how this is related to that and then you have the twitter symphony. It comes out in a way, like yard goods, you mete it out. It’s a very intuitive and extremely inefficient process, this business of writing fiction the way I write it.
RB: Not on demand?
AG: Out of necessity. Out of necessity. The ‘for hire’ part is pretty provisional. It’s seasonal work. It comes and goes and I have been very well paid for books and I have also given books away. The great privilege is to be able to get up every morning and do it. How many doctors would go unpaid just for the privilege of being in the examination room with patients everyday? That’s what most American writers are doing, they are not writing for money, they are writing because writing is a clarifying experience. It’s a second form of dreaming. It’s a cultural intuition. It’s a way of having the world make brief sense for yourself. It’s very hard to give up. If somebody came and told me, “You’ll never earn another penny from doing this and you’ve got to find three day jobs,” I would not be able to stop. I have a lap-top on the airplane, as I am on this tour. It’s not that I am writing a great masterpiece, it’s like a bread maker, I just have to have my hands in the yeast.
RB: Very few writers write on the road. Walter Mosley does…
AG: When you are up in that airplane…if the pilot said, “Allan, I need your help in the cockpit because we are way off course.” I would not be able to help him. So I might as well sit there poking letters into space trying to make sense of things. I’m far from phones, far from any kind of real responsibility. It’s like being in a play-pen, in a way. It’s a pleasure.
RB: Maybe it could be an opportunity to do basic research, soaking in the conversations and people’s mannerisms…
AG: I’m always observing. Flying over New York today — it’s the first time I’ve seen it since the event. A row of teeth with a molar missing…
RB: What was this book going to be after you wrote the first novella?
AG: I really thought only of the validity of story I was telling. I didn’t think, “Gee, this is a novella.” It was a necessary length for one piece. Then I had three of those and I thought, “Wouldn’t a fourth one be wonderful?” And I had one in the works. I have six novellas nearly done. I’m always working on many, many things at once. Saint Monster was a short story I have had in progress for about twelve or fifteen years. I remember transferring from type script to the computer. Every six months I’d get out the first thirty pages about giving Gideon Bibles out in North Carolina in the ’50s, going to those funky old motor courts and think, “This is lovely stuff but I have no idea where this is going. This is lyrical, but it’s not enough to be lyrical.” One day, I got it out about ten years in, and there was a traffic accident and the kid looks over at his father, who is this ugly and utterly beguiling and charming sweet man and the kid realized his father is black. In the bash of adrenaline, in the course of the accident, he sees his father as other people have seen him. And he realized that this can’t really be his genetic father. Or can it? Because this man is black and he’s platinum blonde and suddenly this was the thing that I had been looking for in the story. I had to dig and dig and dig. And literally create entrapment situations so I could tell myself the real history of the story. Then I was really on to the scent. It’s like being a detective in reverse. You are not finding clues, you are planting clues. But you are planting them, to find them. It’s very, very circular and very inefficient. By the time you finish with these people you know them in a DNA inside-out way. And you exactly know how they would say everything. They are phantoms. It’s not autobiographical. John Cheever used to say, “Fiction is a force of memory misunderstood.” Genuinely — when it’s working — when you are in the zone, it is truly like remembering something 14 times as vivid as anything you have ever lived. It’s given to you. All you have to do as a good secretary is just transcribe it and get it down and polish it.
RB: Are you in a trance?
AG: Not all the time. But that’s why you do the drudge work, you do the preparation.
RB: Meaning, rewriting?
AG: Endless rewriting, cutting out adverbs and shortening sentences.
RB: What’s your relationship with your editor?
AG: My editor is very respectful of what it is that I do. He makes marks on the manuscript that I sometimes gratefully accept and sometimes — more often — say, “I see why that makes good grammatical sense, but the fact is I’m 54 years old. This the way I write. If you want to hear Diana Ross don’t go out and buy a Leslie Gore album. This is the way I sing.” A certain kind of piling up of detail, a certain visual gluttony is a part of my style and part of what people read me for. It’s too late to retool.
RB: Have you had the same editor?
AG: Elizabeth Sifton did the first two books. Dan Frank did Plays Well With Others and Gary Fisketjon is the editor of this book. They are all good in different ways.
RB: Richard Ford has said he would stop writing if Fisketjon stopped editing.
AG: Gary and Richard have an almost fraternal connection. That’s the ultimate. I have that with very close friends who have read my work for thirty years and whose work I read. It means when they send you something, you drop everything and read it they day you get it. Even canceling appointments and across time zones because you know that six weeks waiting for an answer is like six weeks leaving the fetus on the side of the road.
RB: A few years ago there was a rash of stories of national magazines having ‘issues’ with stories having gay content. David Leavitt and Esquire comes to mind. In one of the novellas you have an episode where the character submits a story about a gay sailor in Viet Nam. You also had a problem …
AG: Yeah, yeah Esquire. First they asked me for a story. This was a story was working on. I was in Viet Nam on an aircraft carrier. We’ve all heard so many Viet Nam stories about straight guys from the Midwest and Asian girls and blah blah blah. But to be gay on an aircraft carrier off Viet Nam, I haven’t read that much. It was a fascinating perspective on this alien world of being an alien under the disguise of colonialism, trying to police other aliens. It was a really smarmy role. When I proposed this to the then-editor, he said, “You’re really going to rub our noses in it. I thought you were a pro.” As I said in the book it’s like saying to Toni Morrison, “Oh you are writing about black people. You’re really gonna make us pay, bitch.” Nobody would say that to her. Every minority group thinks it’s the most abused at the moment. I do think to be gay in this culture is the last opportunity when you get up and leave the room to imagine what quips are made. There’s a line, “You know what a faggot is? A faggot is a distinguished bachelor friend of the family who has just left the room.” Just when you think things are getting better you find yourself as a character in some trashy book by what you thought was a friend. And you’ve got bleach blond hair and a drop earring and you are saying to all the women at your parties, “I hate you, you are too good looking. I want to be the best looking belle at all my parties.” All these vampy campy trashy 1956 cliches about being gay, thrown at you by somebody who is your neighbor and friend. I just think are we never going to make any progress. Forget Bin Laden, we have so much to straighten out. To make monsters of other people is just more work than I can bear. I hate to be the brunt of that. I like to have the right to blow the whistle on it when I see it.
RB: I’m not clear. Are you hopeful or not?
AG: There’s been a lot of progress. Gay people have just as much right to be idiotic consumers as straight people. Î’ve thought a lot lately about that George Bernard Shaw quote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
RB: I think that is an Oscar Wilde quote.
AG: It doesn’t matter [The quote is by Samuel Johnson]. When all else fails you see these guys by the side of the road with their little flags…it’s a lot more complicated than that; it’s both grander and simpler at the same time.
RB: Where do you live?
AG: I’m in Hillsboro, North Carolina. There are a lot of flags on everything. But it’s a very, very sweet peaceful community. I’m very involved in town politics trying to keep the Wal-mart out.
RB: You are also a gardener…
AG: Yeah, I had to take half my garden out from under my fingernails when I came to Yankee land. It’s extremely calming and daunting in that you are up against all of nature and all your best-laid plans work and don’t work. The great moments, I had a moment three years ago…it’s one of most completely satisfying things that’s happened to me, I have three younger brothers, they are all gardeners. My mother was a passionate gardener. It’s just genetic. They all grow something. One brother brought me red cabbage, which you distribute in the winter…by the time spring came I had these big beautiful beet red cabbages with mammoth frilly leaves. I had a clump of white Siberian irises, that come up with almost pencil sharp buds and come up very fast. These big floppy almost umbrella sized red leaves were perforated by white blossoms that came up and penetrated them and then bloomed through. I can’t even explain to you, how mysterious and beautiful it was. It’s like being a writer, you surrender to the serendipitous, you enjoy it and use it.
RB: Looking forward into the next few years, what’s coming from you?
AG: My next novel is going to be a big, big book like Widow. That is a daunting exercise. A hundred year’s history of a little church that ends in bankruptcy as a television ministry. I’m doing more and more essays and op-ed pieces. Finding that’s extremely useful for me and for other people. One of the privileges of being a writer-citizen is that since all of us are really thinking the same thing at the same time, if you can get it down you have provided a huge service for other people. Just the way all the people of my generation came of age in the 1950’s had the same parents. Because history had put our mothers and fathers in a particular vice between the Depression and the Second War. They were the most similar generation that, I think, ever lived in human history. Forget the ’60s, these people were maimed by history, clipped. I found that if I write honestly about my parents the emotional limitations and the emotional hunger that existed between my generation and my parents — that the resonance is so immense for other people — they are always saying, “How did you know my father?” Well, it’s because I knew mine. I’d like to think one of the benefits of the September 11th conflagration is that barriers between public and private life have been lowered for-ever. And this can make for an easier elision between public and private thinking for writers and for regular people. And a larger, honest political discourse is possible so that literature is not just the purview of a couple of aesthetic sensibilities but anything is permissible.
RB: Thanks very much.