Author [poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, editor, memoirist, biographer, critic, songwriter, and playwright] Barry Gifford was born in Chicago in 1946. He very briefly attended the University of Missouri on a baseball scholarship and also briefly attended Cambridge University. He published a book of poems, Coyote Tantras, in 1973 and co-authored Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac.
Gifford continued his collaboration with Lawrence Lee with William Saroyan’s life story, Saroyan: A Biography (1984). He began writing novels in 1980, Landscape with a Traveler (1980), Port Tropique (1980), Wild At Heart (1984), Sailor’s Holiday (1997), Perdita Durango and Wyoming. In 2000, he published his collected short stories, American Falls. This spring Dan Simon’s Seven Stories Press published The Rooster in the Reptile Room: A Barry Gifford Reader.
Gifford’s books have been translated into twenty-three languages. Affirming the banality that movies have more consumers than books, it was David Lynch’s Palme d’ Or [that’s from the Cannes Film Festival] winning adaptation of Wild At Heart that has pushed Gifford beyond cult status. He has continued his collaborations with Lynch on Lost Highway and a HBO series, Hotel Room. I would count it sufficient for Gifford’s street cred to say he has won numerous awards and contributed to countless periodicals. He also co-founded and edited the influential crime story-publishing imprint, Black Lizard. Barry Gifford calls the San Francisco Bay area his home.
The Rooster in the Reptile Room is a nearly 500-page compendium of selections from cross section of Barry Gifford’s writing. It features an introduction by Andrei Codrescu that concludes:
Barry Gifford is both a cult writer and a great one. In Europe, where his cult and his prose are not in conflict, he is read as an American original who meets his reader’s expectations of America’s violent pioneering spirit. Eventually, he will be read the same way here. Critics will have no choice but to abandon their terror of fertility and genre crossing and read his work for the purposes of delight, just like real readers do.
Robert Birnbaum: Do you have any thoughts on how long you intend to live? This reader is a kind of mid-career retrospective.
Barry Gifford: Someone made the comment that this was a really a milestone having a portable Barry Gifford reader. I said it was really a milestone or a headstone. I would hope the former rather than the latter.
RB: [laughs] Sure.
BG: My family, the Colbys, my mother’s side of the family, at my daughter’s wedding—my uncle was there, he is ninety-two. He was there with his thirty-year-old companion, dancing up a storm. My mother is just turning seventy-nine with two knee replacements and had a broken leg, and cancer and everything else. She was having a ball and looks great. So the Colbys and many people on that side of the family lived into their nineties and hundreds.
RB: Are you counting on those genes?
BG: It’s a question. I made it this far. And even my grandfather on my father’s side made it to ninety. I could be hit by a laundry truck like Roland Barthes, so you never know. I’m optimistic.
RB: I was looking at your productivity and inferred that you must not have had any addictions or terrible things happen in your life—you have been quite prolific. Movies, books, poetry, chap books. What haven’t you done?
BG: I started writing, really, when I was eleven. And since that time I pretty much always knew what I wanted to do. It was either that or be a baseball player, right? So I played baseball as long as I could—I was a musician but that was an avocation—it wasn’t really until I was in my 30s that I realized that I was really fortunate, in the sense that I had, even if I were deluded, known what I wanted to do. I was a writer. I grew up in a particular way that I had a great university for a writer, sitting around talking to people in hotel lobbies and being around my father’s friends and this and that. And having to keep my mouth shut and listen to the way people spoke. So I was fascinated by language. But the thing is that I didn’t know that not everybody knew what they wanted to do and had a role in life, until I was in my early 30s. I was often impatient with people who seemed to be dithering around and not knowing what direction to take. Then I realized I was a lucky guy. And I was even luckier in the sense that I had some chops, as it turned out. More or less is relative. At least I have been able to do it and support a family by doing it, and I still have a lot that I feel I have left to say.
RB: I hope this is the only reference to our joint high school careers, but you mention being engaged by your interactions with adults. I am trying to remember if you were at all connected to your high school life. Were you?
BG: Only as a baseball player. Certainly, somewhat socially, like all of us. But I always had a private life. And it was really sports that in school, in general, kept me sane. And so that’s what kept me interested. But I didn’t like school and it didn’t like me. You were a lot like me. Not that I felt so much like an outsider, it was just that I had my own agenda and that’s what happened to me going to university. Because I didn’t last very long. I had a very brief career.
RB: Why did you go to Missouri?
BG: To play baseball. But what a terrible place to go to, Columbia, Missouri, in 1964, little Dixie there. But I had grown up in the South, too. I had that split life, don’t forget. Which a lot of people didn’t realize. I had Chicago, but I had also grown up in the Deep South. I would always go back there. So I had this double life. And that was all right. I compartmentalized things. But I didn’t want to be in school. I was impatient to do what I was already doing. So then I went to work as a merchant seaman to make money. I was a musician. I went back to school very briefly in ’66, one term at Cambridge, at King’s College. But they didn’t want me. They were about to throw me out because I couldn’t make my gate requirement. You had to be there sixty days or whatever it was. And that was that one brief term. I didn’t have time for school and that was the end.
RB: Do writing programs contact you? Are you invited to seminars and things like that?
BG: I have been, but I really don’t do those things. I know it’s an industry now—like film programs and all that sort of thing. I even had a problem going to my kid’s preschool.
RB: [laughs] Why is that?
BG: I just felt like I was walking into a prison. I really felt it was this institution, and I was telling my publisher Dan Simon, today…One time I remember, I was at Clinton Public School and I was talking in line before recess one day. It was second grade or something. So the teacher said to me, "Barry, you stay here" as a reprimand and probably was going to come back to me and tell me not to talk in line and then let me go out and play. So all the other kids went out to play, and I was humiliated, standing alone in the classroom as everyone else went out. As soon as they went out and down the stairs one way I went out of the room and down the stairs and walked home. It was ten o’ clock in the morning. About 45 minutes later my mother, who was home, asked me why I was home. I said, "Oh they let us out early today."
RB: [laughs] And so begins your career in fiction.
BG: I was probably well along by then. And then I went about my business. So then the phone rings. She gets a call. It’s the school saying, "Gee we don’t know what happened to Barry. He disappeared." She said, "Oh, he’s right here." And then she got the picture. And she never really questioned me and I didn’t go back that day. But when I went back the next day, the teacher treated me a little differently. I wasn’t going to be shown up by her. I had my own personality and my own agenda and I felt—I guess kids now would say—disrespected. And I wasn’t going to take that from anybody.
RB: I loved the anecdote you relate about your visit to the Cohiba factory in Cuba and the reader [it is an acclaimed legend of the cigar industry in Cuba that the workers hire someone to read to them as they roll the cigars] there knows your work and you happen to have a copy of your book Wild at Heart.
BG: I had a copy in Spanish because it is my habit when I travel to whatever country I am going to try to take along a copy of my book in that a language as a kind of a second passport. And that has really proved valuable. What really happened was I said I was a writer and all of that, and she asked what I might have written that she could have read. I said the most popular was Corazon de Vajhe. She broke into this big grin and embraced me. A kind of little miracle. I thought that maybe she knew the movie. She didn’t say. But no, the books get around. It was popular in Mexico and Perdita Durango was enormously popular, and so what you find out being a writer and being published in other languages is that there really is a global readership as well as a global economy and some of us do much better in foreign countries than we do in our own. And that’s okay.
RB: Is that true for you?
BG: It has been. France especially, Spain, Italy, even Japan. Often I have done better than here. I just signed a contract for Wild at Heart in Russian Before; they just used to steal the books. Now you have to sign contracts.
RB: So they can steal the books.
BG: My agent told me that this was our 23rd language. Not for all the books but for various among them. It’s a kick. It’s like William Saroyan told me years and years ago. He said, "I go to Armenia every year. [It was Soviet Armenia then.] There I am a multi multi millionaire. Though I can’t spend the rubles outside of the Soviet Union. I buy everything for everyone in the town." So he was a god there. It’s kind of a nice feeling, and I learned this early in my twenties. I could go into a publisher wherever I was, in Denmark, it didn’t matter where I was, Spain, and they would treat me well. I could use the restroom. They would buy me lunch. Find me a good hotel; advance me twenty bucks if I was broke. And so I had a home in all of these places. And then I began seeing that in fact there was an entirely different take on what I was doing in other countries. And it began in France, I have to say. That was the first place that really, I saw that kind of acceptance or understanding of what I was about.
RB: Well, people like to joke about the French, especially the Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke jokes, but someone like Paul Auster is well regarded there. Edmund White too.
BG: Paul is the most popular American writer in France, by far. Paul lived in Paris for eight years. He was fluent from early on in France. He does French translations. I have been a friend with Paul for over thirty years. His sensibility was formed, in a way, by the French writers. Without going too deeply into that, he appealed to them. They understood him. And it worked. So in different places—it started in France but then in Spain and Mexico and Latin American countries— all of a sudden my books became very popular. I did a reading in Mexico City at the Opera House, and four hundred and fifty people stormed the stage. I said, "What is this, I’m not Madonna?" It’s because of the popularity of a couple of the books and the film of Perdita Durango, which was big deal there. So you don’t have a control over this. You just send those things out like ship out at sea and wherever they land…
RB: It’s not that you are invisible, but you are not connected to the New York-centric publishing business. If you lived in New York what would your stock in that world be? I am thinking of a host of fine writers. Tom McGuane comes to mind…
BG: Tom was more a part of…I know Tom slightly. I’ve been good friends with Jim Harrison for years and various others in that bunch.
RB: Right, you had a book published by the [now defunct] Clark City Press.
BG: Yeah that little press, Russ Chathams’ press. He’s a great guy. So the Montana group. Tom was more a part of that, early on. He spent more time in NY and certainly in LA. He was a director and wrote screenplays. He didn’t turn his back on it, necessarily. He’s had some ups and downs in his career and it’s been a long and mostly healthy one. But he’s a private man.
RB: What about you?
BG: Since I was 18, I have basically spent half of my life in Europe. I just never liked to play anybody else’s game, I guess. I never lived in New York. I never lived in LA either—as far as the movie business is concerned. I was surprised at some point to see myself written about as a kind of outlaw, in the literary world. In that I am slightly exotic. They didn’t know what to make of me. I am not part of any group. I come into New York. I don’t read at the 92nd St Y. I read at the KGB bar. I’ll go to Mexico City and read in the Opera House. Actually, I have lived in Rome four out of the last five years. And read in the most distinguished venue there. In Madrid, in theaters, London in theaters. It’s kind of amazing. But here, it’s sort of less so. But I don’t play the academic game. I find that in this country, it’s really people sort of trading off, in a way. You hire me, I’ll hire you. That sort of thing. In any case, I am not very academically connected. A few years ago the Film Studies program at the University of California at Berkeley had been after me to come in and teach there for a while. I kept saying, "No, no, I don’t teach." I have this peculiar aversion to schools. The buildings, maybe. I don’t know. But finally Tony Case, who is head of the department there, prevailed upon me and said, "Look, we’ll make you a professor. You can be an adjunct professor and we’ll pay you so much money." I said, "That’s not enough. I can’t stick around for thirteen weeks to do this sort of thing." But finally he kept raising the ante. And so he tripled the ante and I was being the most terrible prima donna because I really didn’t want to do it but I didn’t want to insult him. I was very flattered. I have to admit I was flattered. I said, "Okay Tony that sounds good. But one more thing." He said, "What’s that?" "I need a parking place next to the building."
RB: [both laugh]
BG: He said, "That’s the deal breaker. People have taught here for thirty years and they haven’t gotten a parking place…" I said, "Well, sorry but thanks a lot." The next day he called me back and said, "All right, we got you a parking place." You know how that is, when you play hard to get. Anyway, I did it for one semester. I had a lot of fun. It was a graduate seminar. The kids were so filled up with theory that they wanted shoptalk. So I would bring people in—directors and writers who really worked in the industry. It was great fun, but then I retired. I gave everybody an ‘A’ at the beginning, at the first class. The first thing they said to me before I went in there was, "Now the one thing we don’t want you to say is, ‘Drop out and just go write.’ because after all this is a business and we need the money and we like them to go on to graduate school, UCLA or wherever.” So the first thing, I went into class and said, "They just told me that the one thing they didn’t want me to say was, ‘Drop out and write.’" So it kind of progressed in that way. I am gratified that a couple of people in the class have gone on to begin good careers—not due solely to me… one of them has directed his first feature. But I retired. I said, "No that’s it. Thank you," and I left. I was flattered. After all, I am nowhere near a college degree and then based on my work, I was accorded this. I considered it an honor and made sure they knew that and I appreciated it. But I’m too restless for that kind of thing. It would have been nice to have a good health plan. [chuckles]
RB: Do you have a home?
BG: I sort of do. I have kept a base in San Francisco for thirty something years. I have a writing studio and loft that I have kept for all these years. It used to house a printing shop; no longer. I liked it because it was very Balzacian in the sense that I could hear those commercial printing presses going. And there are nothing but artists in these lofts. And I was the only writer. I always identified more with the visual artists than with writers. In fact, I am not friends with very many writers. I never cultivated those friendships. Maybe that’s why I am a bit dutres when it comes to the academic or more established world, if you want to call it that. I have always kept that, and I have a house there. And so I have always gone back. And my children live there, most of them. So that’s been home for a long time.
RB: It would seem that putting together this collection of your writings would cause you to think about your career. Having done so what are you looking forward to? I know you wrote an opera.
BG: I wrote an opera that is going to be staged at the Bolshoi in a couple of years. It’s being completed by Ichiro Nodiara. It was written at the behest and with Toru Takemitsu who was a wonderful man who passed a way a few years ago. And organized by Kent Nagano and then the Opera de Lyon. Now it’s a part of the Russian National Orchestra productions. It’s funny because Takemitsu liked my poetry. He himself was a poet and somehow knew my books and filmwork and I got a call one day. I was watching my youngest son play baseball in San Diego. And I got a call asking if I would fly to Vienna to meet with Takemitsu and Seiji Ozawa and Daniel Schmid, the Swiss director and Nagano and Jean Pierre Brossman from Paris. And I said, "About what?" But it was great experience, actually. It was really wonderful to work with Takemistu. We worked in Tokyo and San Francisco and Vienna. What a great man. He did ninety film scores, many for Kurosawa. He was really one of the kindest, smartest terrific guys…but anyway. He passed away so Nodaira who had recorded all of his piano music is writing the music. So I wrote the libretto. Not knowing much about opera except I like listening to the music.
RB: Is there a narrative form that you haven’t attempted? Or are uncomfortable with?
BG: I am in a kind of happy position that I have various forms available to me now. I try to keep things interesting for myself. It took me a while to get to the novel. I started by writing songs and writing poetry. Then I got to the novels and wrote novels for ten years. I have written some memoir essays and various journalism and non-fiction over the years. And then David Lynch asked me to write for the series that we did, Hotel Room, for HBO—which is a great lost directorial work of David’s. You do it for TV and it’s gone…
RB: ‘Gone’ meaning?
BG: Who sees it? But it’s wonderful work. I stated writing plays for that and then I went on and did a full-length play an adaptation of my novel Wyoming that they did at the Magic Theater in San Francisco. So that was added to the repertoire. All these forms are available and I like trying them out. Some I am probably better at than others, but they entertain me. That’s the best thing I can say. I came late, in a way, to the short story. I would write short stories in the form of vignettes that would be included in the novels. But then I started writing short stories just for their own sake. Now I am working in a shorter form. Novellas and short stories.
RB: What’s a novella?
BG: It’s just an easy reference for something that is in between a short story and a novel. But it does have beginning, a middle and an end. There are three acts, more or less. But there are no rules in this. I think they are just labels and they sell something. I’ll tell you something; my feeling is, in a strange way we are at the end of the literary era. If you go back to the Han era in Japan, it’s been a thousand-year run since Lady Murasaki and Sei Sinagun and the Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji to now. Or if you use the European model, it’s been about four hundred years. I thought before we were through I wanted to try [chuckles] all of these different avenues. And that’s what I am doing.
RB: And why do you think the end is near?
RB: It seems that television is getting more literary and story driven.
BG: I hope you are right.
RB: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and now The Wire. I spoke with George Pelecanos and he thinks a lot of what they are doing on The Wire….
BG: But George is a category writer. He’s not really a literary writer. Not that he’s not a good writer, but he is working in a prescribed form. I’m sure he would even say that. And that’s fine. I have great admiration for people who do something well regardless of what form they are working in. I have great respect for those guys having edited Black Lizard books for years. I admire great writer like Jim Thompson and Charles Wileford. One interesting thing about France is that they don’t make mystery writers or crime-fiction writers second-class citizens in terms of literature. I think that’s right. Why would you think of doing that to Raymond Chandler, for example?
RB: Why do we do it here?
BG: You got me, I don’t know.
BG: You’re the critic. I’m not; you’re the analyst. [both laugh]
RB: Don’t blame me.
BG: I’m not blaming you.
RB: I’m a fan. I’m not a critic.
BG: That’s the best thing to be, in a way. To be an informed aficionado. Which I am, too. I think all of us are who love literature, which are just interested in stories. People’s stories and from the beginning I was always interested in language. Because early on. I was raised moistly in hotels, often in the company of my father and his friends, and my dad was a racketeer based in Chicago but traveled all over—Miami, Havana, New York, New Orleans. And so I listened to the way people spoke. All the dialects, especially in those days. In The Rooster Trapped in the Reptile Room I talk about my affection for Mencken’s The American Language.
RB: In the Q & A you did with Tom McCarthy.
BG: I want to mention that specifically because Mencken’s book was great. He was recording all those dialects. Everybody coming from Ellis Island and all of that. By listening to the way these different people spoke, it was fascinating. It was like doing a kind of translation. In a way I am still doing it. You know.
RB: Tell me about the book you did called Bordertown. Is there a movie version?
BG: There was a documentary done on me by the French for Arte called Bordertown: A journey with Barry Gifford. That was inspired by the book. Chronicle Books in San Francisco, which was doing really lovely visual books, an editor there approached me one day and said, "I’d love to do a book with you of your own choosing. Where would you like to go and what would you like to do? Perhaps we can do it." So I found the time and chose this photographer, David Perry, who is one of the great black-and-white photographers since Robert Frank. So we decided to travel along the US-Mexico border. I would write the text and he would take the photos. I was familiar with the territory. I had written about it in the novels and had spent a considerable amount of time there. So that’s what we did. The result was the book Bordertown that was pretty controversial at the time. It won some awards and it’s being reprinted. We have done a second one a sequel called Las Quartos Reinas [Four Queens], which was just published this last year in a very limited edition…
RB: Four Queens?
BG: It was the name of a bar in Tijuana. It’s in a little different form than Bordertown.
RB: Bordertown was done in a kind of fragmentary collagistic diaristic way.
BG: It included a lot of things from my drawings to poems. And there are short stories. It’s a trip book. What I really wanted them to do…there is whatever I was writing clippings from newspapers and magazines, collages all of that. Some of that obfuscating and obscuring the photographs themselves. It was meant to be like that, like a scrapbook. And it was over a period of several weeks that we did this. But we had more material. We decided to do a second book in a different way. Four Queens was published for $1500 a copy by a gallery, Gallery 16, in an exquisite edition. There are probably twenty-four copies or whatever they did. Now it’s coming out in a commercial edition. What I do in this book is write descriptions or responses to David’s photographs. The font is in my handwriting. It’s a beautiful book, you’ll see.
RB: Is there a literature of the border?
BG: Absolutely there is. A number of people who write books just concerned with that border area, as I wrote in Bordertown. It’s really kind of like an island, its own country, fifty miles either side, things are different there than they are in the rest of Mexico or certainly than in the rest of the United States. I was always interested in people who live life on the edge or in isolated circumstances, who aren’t parts of the mainstream for whatever reason. I don’t know that I identified with those people more but there is something else going on. There is a movement that you don’t find in more complacent communities, let’s say. And there’s more action, some of it violent, that takes place in that kind of territory. So it was fascinating to me and I was happy to be able to do it.
RB: Let’s see, you feel somewhat liberated and also you feel that is the end of the literary era…
BG: I just think the market has shrunk. This can be statistically born out. I don’t think people read—there are certainly exceptions. We are still alive and we still read. But I don’t think it is the same. I think television and now the computer has changed things. I don’t know exactly how. But I am going to go on. As a writer who has passed away sometime ago, Douglas Wolf, once said, "Even if there were only one reader out there, I would still be writing for him or her." I feel the same way. Making a living is another matter. I have been fortunate enough for some years to make a living by my writing and writing pretty much what I want to. Even with films, I only work in the movies with projects that I think will be special. Or with directors that have a vision that is exceptional. In that way, I have been pretty lucky.
RB: I don’t need hard numbers. Are your books selling more or less now?
BG: Depends where you are talking about.
RB: In the US.
BG: Some sell more than others do. That’s really how I can answer that.
RB: I’m trying to get a sense…
BG: A book like Wild at Heart, which was helped by the movie, has never stopped selling.
RB: How many of your books are in print in the United States?
BG: I couldn’t tell you. But a lot, still.
RB: I am trying to get a sense of your personal experience with the decline of the literary market.
BG: Let’s say this, the mid-list writer, the mid list has shrunk. And you can talk to any publisher and they will tell you that. The expectations are pretty high.
RB: I see more short story collections being published, which are traditionally not profitable.
BG: Maybe that has to do with shorter attention spans in general.
RB: Even so, there is a profit motive involved, why are they being published?
BG: You’ll have to ask the publishers. I really can’t answer the question. That’s fine. Good writing is good writing in whatever form you find it. And so that’s great. It didn’t hurt Chekov any.
RB: That was before TV. [both laugh]
BG: A different era certainly. I’m all for it. That’s fine with me. Maybe that’s what the writing programs are turning out, short story writers. I don’t know.
RB: The programs are turning out short story readers.
BG: That’s good. I always said that. When people have asked me what do I think of all these creative writing programs or whatever. I’d say, "I don’t think you can really teach anyone to write." They are either a writer or they are not. But what it can do is engender reading, reading of more interesting and difficult material. So it can engender a greater appreciation of what some people are doing. Also, that’s okay. I have no complaints about it. As long as I don’t have to do it.
RB: In your response you reminded me of two ongoing issues. One is the exceedingly deep resentment that there is of writing programs. And then the second one is the deep resentment toward certain writers that represent that they can’t understand. The names that come up are Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo. These people are regularly slammed.
BG: Let me tell you. One thing I love about writing, serious work, painting. [long pause] This is all subjective. It’s not a competitive sport. I was an athlete—you know that—I mean the thing is, in a game is to score more points than the other guy, the other team. This is not that away. I prefer to think of it as entirely subjective. “Comparisons are odious” as Gary Snyder once famously said to Jack Kerouac when discussing Buddhism. And I really embrace that philosophy. I am just loathe to say…look if you like Salman Rushdie’s books, god bless you. If I do or I don’t it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of writers out there. There is a lot to choose from. Certainly you will find writers that you prefer or that speak to you. More than others. Dan Simon [my publisher] has really done his best to revive Nelson Algren. It’s one reason I admire him as a publisher. I loved Algren. Nowadays he is not well read. But thanks to Dan the books are available. It’s a shame when good writers fall by the wayside.
RB: It’s okay that people are passionate about writers, and you are correct, it’s not a competition, but I am mystified at the vilification that takes place.
BG: So don’t pay any attention to it. Jack Spicer, an early influence on me, a poet who died in San Francisco in 1965 in one of his poems was addressed to William Shakespeare. He said, "This is the way we dead men write to one another."
RB: I like Will Self‘s observation in another context [about literary prizes], "How do you win in fiction?"
BG: Well, this is another matter. The funniest thing that ever happened to me with that was that is I got a call one day that I had won this prize in Italy, the Premio Brancati named after Victorio Brancati and it was a prize established by Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini. So they wanted to fly me to this little town in Sicily where Brancati was from. The prize was five thousand dollars. And the other two honorees that year were Paul Bowles and Ceri Hulme, a New Zealand writer. This was in the early ’90s sometime. And so I said that’s great. In any case I fly from SF to NY and I get to NY and there’s a blizzard and they close JFK. And I can’t fly out. I only have another sixteen hours to get to this place and somebody was waiting for me at the airport in Rome and all this kind of thing. Anyway, to make a long story short, I didn’t get there. So they said we will do it by telephone. We will make the presentation by telephone. So my editor from Bompiani was there. She came from Milan to this town. Everybody was there and they called me and the first question was "Why aren’t you here?" “Because there is a snow storm and I can’t get out of New York.” So I thanked them for the honor and what not. So Elisabetta Scarbi my editor got on the phone and said, "I will accept the prize for you." Which I was assuming that she had done. That was the end of that. I didn’t hear anything and finally I wrote to her. I said, "What about the five thousand dollars?" It turns out the Sicilians just grabbed it. They said, "He wasn’t here. One of the rules was he had to be here."—which they made up on the spot, was that the recipient of the prize had to be present to receive the monies. So my only prize in Italy, I never got the money, but they still list me as a prizewinner.
RB: Can’t you go collect?
BG: I was living in Italy for four years, but you don’t mess around with those people, in Sicily. [laughs]
RB: What are you looking forward to?
BG: Somebody asked that question recently, they asked me, what my best book was? I said the next one. But I am, not exactly sure what the next one is, really. I just finished a new book. So I guess that’s why. The book is Do the Blind Dream? It comes out next year. I sort of like not knowing. I really go back and forth between film projects and fiction.
RB: When you are where you are and beginning something, is one of the early thoughts what the form is? What is your starting point?
BG: The story itself dictates the form. You asked earlier about writing in all these different forms. And some times it comes now in the form of a short story. Or it takes longer and I call it a novella or novel. Or sometimes in the form of a play. Even in the form of a screenplay. And sometimes even an essay or a poem. Or on those rare occasions, songs. And sometimes I can change it from one form to another. So it’s really the subject that seems to dictate the form to me. I am sure I can manipulate it in some way. That’s why I don’t say strictly speaking I am a novelist. I like having the choice. The choice is very important to me. I used to think, years ago, that kind of when I had said all I had to say in a certain way, that I would, just in those later years, if I had them, that I would just write a kind of Chinese poetry. Not necessarily in the form of Wang Wei or Li Po or To Fu or Su Tung Po. But I have been influenced by the Chinese poets in particular. And I have written a lot in that mode. In fact, I have had people come from China to interview me just about that. Even when I was in Japan that happened. They saw that I had something in common with them. That’s another side of me that the people that read the novels like Wild At Heart which are full of violent satire or whatever wouldn’t know about. I think that’s a good thing about the reader. It’s eclectic in that way and it’s a survey of the work. I’m not sure exactly.
RB: Some reviewer observed about you that you spent the last 25 years charting the decline of American civilization. Is that a grandiose assessment of your work?
BG: I remember that quote and since it came from the NY Times, the newspaper of record in the US, it must be correct. No, I don’t know. That to me—those remarks are just remarks. The decline of Western Civilization? I thought Oswald Spengler did that long before me.
RB: It’s an ongoing task.
BG: I think in the novels that I wrote for ten years—that period between 1989 and 1999 —I was really dealing with some monsters in American society. Specifically, racism, fundamentalist religion, like that. Certain kinds of absurd violence and trying to come to grips with it and understand it and describe it, sometimes graphic ways but always with a kind of unreal aspect to it. And I began to realize after several years that this is what the French liked about my work. They thought I was being critical of the society in the US and that in a way I had affection, certainly, for my own country, but there were things I didn’t like and that appealed to them.
RB: Whom do you talk to? Who do you exchange ideas with?
BG: Without trying sound like Mr. Natural my friends tend to be plumbers and race trackers, anything but writers. I’ve always found that being friendly with painters, visual artists, was always interesting to me. There is no evidence of competition between writers and painters, we work in different disciplines, and I have always been fascinated by images. Often when I am writing something I have an image. Sometimes it’s a painting; sometimes it’s a postcard or a photograph. An image in my head. When I wrote the Sinaloa story I didn’t know I was going to write a novel. But one day I was sitting there and I had this—it wasn’t a dream. I had an image in my head of someone in an old car driving across a desert landscape, I don’t know where, and it was a fairly dark sky, and there was a bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning behind the car. I wanted to know who was in that car and where were they were going. And that was what inspired the beginning of that novel. And then it took its own course. Sometimes it’s just some kind of image. I have always been close to that. It’s not ideas. I don’t say I am going to write a novel about the Holocaust. Or a novel that deals with slavery. Or whatever. Some people, they can do it well. That’s why I love this. Everybody has a different way in.
RB: What is the longest you go without writing?
BG: I basically write when inspired. I don’t feel its necessary to write every day. When I start on a project then I go I through to the end. Then I am devoted to it and I stick with it. I don’t sit down everyday at the typewriter. I actually write in longhand and then go to manual typewriter. The thing is, I don’t feel I have to sit down every day with a blank sheet of paper in front of me and wait for what comes or try to force something. I have never been that way. I try to sneak up on it, I don’t know how else to say it. I like to do it without a certain kind of pressure.
RB: Is there a revision process? Who edits and revises?
BG: I do.
RB: And when it gets to the publisher?
BG: I write in long hand then I correct the manuscript. That’s two drafts. Then I put it on the manual typewriter. I don’t own a computer because I don’t like the hum. I don’t like the cybernetic insistence. Then that becomes a third draft. Then I correct that by hand and that’s a fourth draft. Then I make a clean copy that’s a fifth. And perhaps when the book is in galley form I will make some other corrections. So there are [at least] five drafts. Very seldom have I had an editor rewrite for me or ask me to rewrite or redo something. The best editors I have had have been the ones that said, "Maybe you should add something here. Or maybe we should move this. Or maybe delete this." I will take that advice if I think it’s good advice. I’m not averse to editing per se. It comes out pretty much the way it’s supposed to be.
RB: [chuckles] Thanks.
BG: Okay. My pleasure.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing