Nascent biographer Blake Bailey has previously published one book, The Sixties, and has written for a number of publications, including Spy magazine. His first entry into the biographical fray is an auspicious one: A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. Bailey lives in Waldo, Florida, with his wife Mary Brinkmeyer and their child. He is currently at work on a biography of John Cheever.
As Ploughshares co-founder DeWitt Henry recommends in A Tragic Honesty, "Richard Yates comes fully alive as an artist and as a man in this meticulously researched, judicious, and critically perceptive biography. Blake Bailey has done for Yates what Carlos Baker did for Hemingway, allowing Yates himself to speak from letters, archives, reported conversations, and from autobiographical passages from the fiction, while organizing the narrative into a gripping story of literary career, proud values, and accomplishment."
The recent publication of Collected Stories (with an excellent forward by Richard Russo) and a new edition of his acclaimed novel Revolutionary Road has led to Richard Yates’s rediscovery. James Wood points out that Yates has "a cultish following among writers and literary readers (in Yates’s case often distinguished writers themselves, like Kurt Vonnegut and Andre Dubus)." The lack of attention Yates’s work has been given, writes Wood, "is hard to fathom. He is not a writer’s writer (that stretched telescope); he is a reader’s writer, always lucid, elegant and frequently poignant. Perhaps things are finally going his way."
Richard Yates’s following will no doubt expand with Blake Bailey’s critically acclaimed presentation of a great—but until recently largely ignored—writer. I spoke with Blake Bailey last fall. His passionate and articulate advocacy of Yates complemented a fine Indian summer day as we talked atop a promontory at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Robert Birnbaum: Do you have a middle initial?
Blake Bailey: B, Blake. I go by my middle name. My first name is John.
RB: John Blake Bailey. J. B. Bailey. Okay, enough of that. How long did it take to write A Tragic Honesty?
BB: All told, about three years. I did a lot of work just to write the original book proposal, which was about fifty pages long. I knew it would have to be a good proposal. Various other people had proposed writing a biography of [Richard] Yates and it had never flown with a good commercial publisher. So, I researched that pretty heavily and once I got the contract—in print the book is 613 pages, my manuscript is about eight hundred and something—I did all the writing in about 9 ½ months, which is really fast, for me.
RB: You spent three years researching a man’s life, who, it appeared to me, was probably miserable for at least the last half, maybe all of his life, every day of his life.
RB: Or so it seemed.
BB: [laughs] Or so it seemed. Yates’s life was always more depressing to other people than it ever was to him. As long as the writing was going well, Yates didn’t much care.
RB: Going well? When did it ever go well for him? Even when it went well, when did it go well?
RB: When did he say, "It’s good, I’m doing good?" [chuckles]
BB: The relative wellness of the life rarely coincided with the relative wellness of the art. When he was married to Martha, for instance—his second wife—in terms of personal fortune, he was very happy, at least in his first years with Martha. I mean for Yates, he was happy. But his writing was shit, you know. He had a terrible time finishing his second novel, A Special Providence. And it was a rather mediocre effort and quickly dispensed with and ignored by the critics. And so he took eight years to write his second novel and he took seven years to write his third novel. Meanwhile the year before Disturbing the Peace—his third novel—was published, Martha left him, and after that his life—not his art, his life—was very bleak. He lived in these sad bachelor apartments that were grimy and squalid and had cockroaches.
RB: You called them Dostoyevskian.
BB: Oh, oh, beyond Dostoyevskian. Again, people would always notice the arc of cockroach carcasses that he would idly stamp as he spun to and fro in his desk chair. But he was oblivious to all that. He didn’t care what his apartment was like. He didn’t care that it stank to people who came in to it because he smoked five packs a day in there. And the writing was going well. Easter Parade—got that done in eleven months, arguably his best crafted novel. Good School in 1978. Good book. Liars in Love in 1981. Fabulous book. One of the great short story collections by an American writer for the second half of the century. And then Young Hearts Crying, alas [laughs]. But you know he was on a roll there for a while. And this was when Yates was at the absolute nadir of his personal fortunes. But he didn’t care as much as you might think he did.
RB: When I think of a man who didn’t go a day without getting drunk except when he was hospitalized, although he had booze sneaked in. But he was drunk everyday—
BB: Oh, absolutely.
RB: —and smoked four or five packs of cigarettes a day. And as you pointed out it took him a couple of hours to kick start himself in the morning.
BB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yates would—let’s not lose sight of the fact that Yates, through whatever chaos of mental illness and alcoholism, was extremely disciplined as a writer. Yes, he would wake up colossally hung over every morning—every morning—and throw up. Just a routine thing because not only was he hung over, [but] he had pulmonary problems and he needed to clear everything out. Then he’d write for four hours.
RB: Let’s not forget his digestive problems. And as you point out, he had hemorrhoids.
RB: Or was that a later condition? I mean really, it’s hard to lose sight of—
BB: —what do you think his stomach must have been like [laughs]?
RB: It must have been almost nonexistent, ripped to shreds.
BB: He barely ate. He didn’t have much of an appetite. He was one of those alcoholics who had lost interest in food. But every morning he got the writing done. And during those first Boston years in the mid-seventies, after he spent the year getting Martha out of his system, the drinking was tapered off.
RB: Tapered off to what?
BB: He would have maybe a couple of Michelobs at lunch at the Crossroads [a bar near Mass Ave on Beacon Street], and then he would take a nap and then he would write again in the afternoon, having written four hours in the morning. And then he would go and get drunk for dinner. But goddamn, by that time he had written for seven hours.
RB: Okay, your sense of his life is that it is, as the title indicates, tragic, but it’s not as grim and desperate as my reaction?
BB: I dare say it’s not. And one thing . . . my approach to one of the most important aspects of the book . . . I wrote, I thought—and more objective readers are free to disagree with me—but I worked hard on getting the voice right. And one of the reasons I was able to write it with such relative speed was because I had found my pitch and that was a tone of ironical detachment. Or that was what I was going for.
Because this was a story that was, on the surface of it, so hideously bleak that you are not going to engage the reader for six hundred pages if you just pound away at the bleakness. The first line of the book is, "If the prerequisite of any great writer’s life is an unhappy childhood, then Richard Yates was especially blessed." And that sets the tone, and as soon as I wrote that line, writing that book was one sweet dream. And Yates was hilarious, you know. He’d go to writers’ conferences and go stumbling around insulting people and hitting on women [laughs].
RB: Was he terminally impotent? He was always talking about fucking this girl and that girl, but you do talk about his impotence, not to mention his alcohol consumption which must have taken a toll.
BB: Monica Yates was very upset about characterizing her father as impotent. I’ll tell you when he was most impotent. That is perhaps the best way to proceed. After he finished Revolutionary Road in 1961—that was his first novel—of course he just completely let himself go to seed. That was a terrible bender and it lasted for a long time. And he was drinking around the clock; he wasn’t writing and he was blocked. And when you are not writing and you are Richard Yates, you better believe you are drinking. So he was impotent then. Natalie Bowen was his girlfriend and she tells me he never got it up. I mean she can’t remember him getting it up one time. Now what Monica [the daughter] wanted me to emphasize was that he was quite virile when he was married to Martha. You’ll recall when he was married to Martha [that] most of the time, except there toward the end of the marriage, he rationed his drinking to a quarter of a bottle of bourbon a night and nothing before five o’clock. That was for Martha’s sake. And yet at the same time the writing really wasn’t going that well, so instead of writing he was having sex with his wife—who was really his physical ideal, sort of this flat-chested dancer’s body. That’s what he liked. And then after Martha he had about five more years of occasional virility. But by 1980 he was pretty much permanently out of the game. Yup.
RB: I was interested in how you write an extensive proposal to pitch this book to a big commercial house.
RB: Why did other proposals . . . why were they rejected?
BB: The time wasn’t right, for one thing. And another . . . Well, a couple of things. The first thing I did when I considered a biography of Richard Yates—and I never had previously fancied myself a biographer; it wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing—but this is what happened. There is not a lot of critical writing about Yates. I hope that will change. Academia has all but totally ignored him. But there is a very good Twain monograph—the Twain United States Authors series. A series of monographs on major American authors, about five hundred of them. I think it’s Morrow that Twain is a division of. So in 1996 a monograph on Yates was published and the second chapter was an overview of the then few-known facts of Yates’s life. And it was fascinating because, reading it, one realized that everything that Yates wrote about was true. The drunken manqué sculptor mother, the would-be tenor salesman father. Everything! The house in the suburbs, the catastrophic first marriage, blah, blah, blah. And I thought quite apart from the fact that for my money Yates is the neglected should-be-canonical author of postwar American writers—apart from that, his story is [with great emphasis] fascinating. Apart from being the archetypal ignored and dissolute American writer, he was Bobby Kennedy’s sole speech writer at the height of the Civil Rights movement and so on and so forth. It’s a fascinating life.
RB: And the obligatory stint in Hollywood.
BB: He did. He did the obligatory stints plural in Hollywood. Wrote a fabulous screenplay for John Frankenheimer [an adaptation of William Styron's Lie Down In Darkness] which had Natalie Wood’s agent not wanting her to be portrayed as having an incestuous relationship with Henry Fonda. It would possibly have made a very great movie. Anyway, so I knew this was a book that should be written. Now, I wrote the proposal at the end of 1999 and an agent took it and said, "I’ll see what I can do, but don’t get your hopes up."
RB: [chuckles, then laughs]
BB: Around that time Yates was completely out of print. Completely out of print. Not even Revolutionary Road was in print. In April 2000 Vintage brought out a new edition of Revolutionary Road with an introduction by Richard Ford and Ford’s introduction ran in the New York Times Book Review, called "American Beauty, 1955," about Revolutionary Road, of course. It was very well done. Very astute. You know Richard Ford is an enormous admirer of Yates. Meanwhile, a few months before that, Stewart O’Nan had written an essay in the Boston Review entitled, "The Lost World of Richard Yates." which made a case that he belonged in the company of Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Hemingway and so forth. And Houghton Mifflin and Holt were bidding for the Collected Stories. So it all sort of converged at once.
RB: Which Richard Russo ended up writing the introduction for.
BB: Which Russo ended up writing a fabulous introduction for, and the editor who pitched it was Tom Bissell, who is a very good writer himself. What happened with me—I know I ‘m just yammering on here—one of the reasons I almost shied away: I read the Twain monograph and the first thing I did was call the coauthor of the Twain monograph, who is a professor at Pace named Steven Goldleaf. And it was clear that he too had wanted to write a biography of Yates. He said, "Don’t do it. One, you won’t sell it. Two, Monica [the middle daughter], is the executor. Monica is going to sabotage this book. Either from the outset. Or later [laughs] after you have spent the best years of your life writing it." So I said, "Okay, what do I have to lose." So I called the oldest daughter Sharon first and she is this very sweet lady, a schoolteacher in Brooklyn with this Edith Bunker, outer-borough accent. And she said, "Oh Monica is not going to [sabotage it]. Call Monica. Sure." And I called Monica and Monica is eccentric and she is crotchety but she liked the fact that I wasn’t an academic. She hates academics [laughs]. She feels that they are solely responsible for keeping Yates’s reputation in the shitter.
RB: Did it ever cross your mind that Steven Goldleaf was interested in sabotaging something he couldn’t seem to get at?
BB: There might have been an element in that—God knows we are all human. But all I will say . . . I can tell about pettiness that I have experienced from academics but Goldleaf was enormously helpful. I told him I was going to go ahead and do it. This was when I was writing the proposal and there were no guarantees. He sent, gratis, all his research. In a box.
RB: Wow. That’s generous.
BB: It’s very generous. And he came and spoke on this panel that I moderated in New York and he wrote a blurb—he was the token academic blurb on the hard cover. So, no, Goldleaf was great. So let me wrap this up here. I wrote this book proposal and it was good. It was densely researched but it was a good read and my agent thought, "I think we can sell this."
RB: Still the same agent.
BB: No, I changed agents. Hee-hee.
RB: From the "don’t get your hopes up" agent.
BB: Well, that’s the agent who sold the Yates book, yes; but later, after the book was published, I changed agents. Anyway, what my first agent said was, "If this proposal doesn’t sell then Yates is not going to get a biography anytime soon. This a good proposal." So Holt and Houghton Mifflin were bidding for the Collected Stories. And both of them told my agent if we (whichever) get the Collected Stories we will also buy the biography. But Monica kept asking for more money. And I called Monica and I said, "Monica, this biography of your father is at stake here. Can’t you relent and just let them have it for—" And she said, "No. No don’t worry about it. That was Dad’s problem. He never asked for enough money. They are not going to push a book unless they have to pay real money for it."
RB: There’s truth to that.
BB: There is a truth to that. Holt finally got the book, but they had to pay way too much for it, more than they had expected. So they didn’t buy my biography.
RB: My god.
BB: So seven months passed. Seven horrible—good months. I got married. I’m like Yates: my personal life was okay.
BB: And then in January of 2001, I had all but despaired. [Then] my New Yorker came in the mail. I was in my car running errands. I was at a stoplight and was looking at the table of contents and the short story was by Richard Yates. And that was Yates’s great dream [laughs]—trying to get a goddamn story in the New Yorker. And it happened eight years too late. I raced home and e-mailed my agent. I said, "Have you seen this week’s New Yorker? The January 15, 2001, issue?" And within a week she sold my book. To Picador, which is owned by the same German conglomerate who owns Holt, who shut me down before.
RB: So the frequently cited quote from Ford is something to the effect that appreciating Yates is like a Masonic handshake or something.
BB: "A cultural literary secret handshake." Yeah.
RB: And that brings to me of the phrase "writer’s writer." Maybe a contemporary would be Alice Munro, though her books sell.
BB: Alice Munro is unjustly labeled that way too. Yates was unjustly labeled that way because when you call someone a writer’s writer, you are suggesting there is something esoteric about their writing—that it’s self consciously experimental. That the person is a bold innovator, a Pynchon or something of that sort. Nothing could be further from the truth in Yates’s case. The degree to which it’s true is that perhaps only people who are writers, and particularly fiction writers, can appreciate Yates’s consummate craftsmanship—the way he makes objective details resonate not only in a psychologically revealing way, but also with symbolic overtones which never ever heavy handed. Yates has the lightest . . . in his best work, the lightest, loveliest touch, and he is a beautiful storyteller. And he is a reader’s writer. He’s an engaging writer that everyone should read.
RB: You are clearly a passionate and articulate advocate for him. You want to do more than add him to the canon. You want to beatify him. Which is okay, but what is the objective criterion for anointing artists, for making them canonical? What is the rhyme or reason for who is remembered and who is neglected?
BB: Not much rhyme or reason. But one thing you really need and is unfortunate in Yates’s case, is the endorsement of the academy. Faulkner had that to a very large degree. Again, Faulkner’s work has an opacity to it that demands explication of an academic sort. [In] The Sound and the Fury you are working through a very densely layered narrative. That’s not the case with Yates. Or in the case with Hemingway, who if anything has gotten very mixed reviews from the academy. You need to have an enormous cultural impact. Hemingway became a totemic figure in American culture at large, which happens, as you know, to very few writers, especially in this day and age.
RB: Not more in this day and age?
BB: [responds with disbelief] This is the postliterate age that we live in.
RB: But that’s not the same thing. Without engaging in a digressive debate, let me say the notion of branding and the corruption of marketing strategies in all areas, creating celebrities—
BB: I see what you are saying.
RB: So the celebrity aura of a writer may or may not have any connection to their literary value.
BB: That’s simply pandering to the throwaway culture that we are in right now. It may create an evanescent gossamer sheen to a writer, but it doesn’t last. Again, every Joe Six Pack knew who Hemingway was and identified with him as a man as well as a writer. So to be admitted to the so-called canon, either the academics need to think you are hot shit—and academics are the worst sort of philistines, so that’s unfortunate with really good writers—or you have to have the Hemingwayesque celebrity aura. Or, like Fitzgerald, his life and his legend with Zelda and so forth has a lot to do with his enduring fame. I adore Fitzgerald but he only wrote one masterpiece—but that masterpiece happened to be the great American novel as far as I’m concerned. One last thing with Yates, vis-à-vis all this stuff. When I first read my way through Yates’s oeuvre—I have an execrable French accent—
RB: I am not any better.
BB: [laughs] Oh good. I’m a not suggesting that Yates is better than certain canonical writers, but he made them seem a little silly to me. They are Romantics; even Faulkner is a Romantic to some extent. You have the brave, stoical mavericks in Hemingway’s work, the grace under pressure, and you have with Fitzgerald these beautiful people who come to a glamorous but bad end, and so on. Yates tells it like it is. Life is lonely and dull and disappointing, and the way you endure is to pretend to be something you are not and then inevitably you have to pay for that too. Because you can’t outrun the truth.
RB: This notion about academic acceptance—more and more disciples, appreciators, of Yates ended up teaching in the academy—
RB: They aren’t the academics you are talking about?
BB: No. I’m talking about literature teachers. English teachers.
RB: But hasn’t the accession of his students and admirers, hasn’t this helped his cause?
BB: Tremendously. It’s the one thing that has kept his reputation alive. And I do want to emphasize that distinction. Writers, real writers who out of financial necessity teach—
RB: Some actually like teaching [laughs].
BB: These people, whether they were taught by Yates or not, and particularly if they were one of Yates’s writing students, they adore Yates. Because they are real writers themselves, they know that what Yates does is impossibly difficult and requires an enormous talent. Academics, alas [searches for words], they bring all these—more so all the time—all these irrelevant agendas to dissecting a work of literature. When you approach a work of literature you should approach it as a work of art and everything else is totally irrelevant. Sociological concerns are, at best, secondary. Yes, you can examine the ethos of the 1920s when you read The Great Gatsby, but it’s secondary to considering what makes Gatsby work as art. What are the sustaining motifs? What is the effect of the peripheral narrator and blah, blah, blah? Very few academics approach it in this way. They all have their little axes to grind.
RB: Is there a literary academia today? There are critics I read who are more, let’s say, conceptual than many reviewers. James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn, Jonathan Yardley, and perhaps Richard Eder to some extent, and of course other writers who do literary criticism. Who are the literary academia?
BB: [laughs] You don’t hear about them outside of Harold Bloom. The day when gifted artists/critics—Lionel Trilling and Delmore Schwartz and [F. R.] Leavis and so on—were in the academy is long gone. Randall Jarrell, the poet, wrote some of the most brilliant criticism of the century. These people were artists in their own right, but they also had a love for literature that most academics don’t have. Now I like to except . . . cultural journalism is the best way to go these days. But again this is not an age of Edmund Wilson. He taught briefly at Harvard and was miserable there. He called himself a cultured journalist. And there are such people but rarely does one find then in the academy.
RB: You never thought you would be doing a biography or be a biographer and clearly you have a passionate attachment to the work you have just done about an author for whom you have high regard. So why are you now embarking upon another biography of another writer, John Cheever?
BB: Because I discovered in the course of writing the Yates biography that perhaps I should be a biographer. Apart from the fact that I think I wrote a good book, I found the work very congenial. If you are passionately interested in your subject there is nothing more fun. Running down these people who are now eighty-something years old and they are the only ones who observed Yates’s nervous breakdown [laughs] in 1962 and finding a cache of letters somewhere. It’s fun. I like to do the legwork and all that.
RB: I was trying to recall, I don’t read many literary biographies, the last being Richard Wright by Hazel Rowley, but I thought you were very diligent about tying his life to passages and sections of various novels. It was as if it was an annotated life.
BB: Yates—sometimes he would get into this extremely maundering mode and he would bend his interlocutor’s ear about how miserable he was in his childhood and what a crazy bitch his mother was and so on. But the sober, very gentlemanly Yates did not like to talk about that. He liked to husband things for his art. He never talked about his work; he didn’t like to talk it out. There is very little documentary evidence relating to Yates’s early life. My approach was . . . I knew it was all true. I knew all the stories about the sculptor-mother and that. There was the New York Times piece about the way Yates’s mother sculpted a bust of F.D.R. and his daughters knew some of that history. And so forth. If I did not have some concrete piece of evidence to back up an assertion found in the fiction then I would not automatically assume the fiction was true. There had to be some sort of real life basis. So I use the fiction and where Yates tells it much better than I ever could, I let Yates tell it. There is less of that later on in the biography, particularly given the fact except in Young Hearts Crying, his least successful novel, he doesn’t write about anything that happened after 1963, and he didn’t die until 1992. Besides, after 1963 his life didn’t amount to much. He was basically sequestered with his writing. So he doesn’t have the life to base the work on. He had to go back into the early life and he did that again and again and again.
RB: No interesting life in Iowa City?
BB: Yeah but it was pretty grim. Well, he was sleeping with Andre Dubus’s wife.
RB: There is a story. This idle speculation but had he lived ten years later, would he have been more accessible and attended to? Or might his students have been more zealous advocates?
BB: Possibly. I think actually when Yates began teaching in writing programs. He started teaching at the New School in 1959 and the New School was started by Hiram Hyden and was one of the first—Iowa started it all—but it was still sort of a cottage industry at that time. That was the main thing. Yates’s students saw the dark side of Yates too, but being familiar with both sides of the man and revering his work, they did a pretty good job of keeping his name somewhat alive. You have to bear in mind—you don’t have to, but I bear in mind—the fact that there are only in this country five to ten thousand really serious readers. And if you can promote a reputation within that tiny parochial world of highly literate people, the chances are that person will eventually be recognized on the basis of merit.
RB: Where are you getting that number?
BB: [laughs] My own sales figures, for one.
RB: [laughs] Well, at the time of Revolutionary Road there were only 8,900 serious readers. Which by the way was short of the figure that Sam Lawrence [an editor at Houghton Mifflin] had proposed of thirty thousand.
BB: They had an advertising budget for a book they projected to sell twenty thousand [copies of]. Which was colossal. Sam Lawrence really pushed that book, and it’s easy to overlook how much of a white hope Yates was—he wrote two arguable classics, one year apart. It’s a lucky thing, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was written in the ’50s, because after Revolutionary Road he was essentially drunk for two years. But he was a youngish man who published a spectacular novel and then followed it with a collection of short stories which was dubbed the New York equivalent of Dubliners, and so there was tremendous pressure on Yates. But that wasn’t what you asked. Again, Yates was heavily promoted as the next big thing in American literature and even that—heavily promoted; he was on the Dave Garroway Show; he was on TV—he did it all and he sold 8,900 copies. Again I want to make the point that the five to ten thousand number isn’t even original with me. It’s a number that’s often bruited about. But in my case, I had the good fortune of being reviewed everywhere but the LA Times. For the most part the prominent reviews were exceptionally wonderful. Unbelievably so. And I got one major book prize nomination, The National Book Critics Circle Award. So, a lot of critical recognition in major markets and not only were they good reviews but the Chicago Tribune did a front page [of the book section] with a huge illustration of Yates. The Boston Globe did the same thing. In the New York Times it was the front page top center review of the arts section, full page, big illustration. So on and so on. I’m not patting myself on the back. I am trying to make the point that these prominent reviews went under the eyes of [excitedly] millions of readers.
RB: And from that you extrapolate what?
RB: There are only five thousand—
BB: —and they are telling people, if they are interested in—
RB: No, no. It’s what makes the book publishing world so uncertain and, at times, crazy. The publishers think they know.
RB: They think they know how to sell a book. Or at least they go to work every day assuming that. They don’t. Who knows why one book sells over another?
BB: Cheever would disagree with me vehemently. And the truth is somewhere in between. I am talking about this core of five to ten thousand people. I am talking about a very hard core. People who are avidly interested in books and new writers.
RB: Here’s a counterexample you have to take seriously; I think this is indisputable. One of the things that is pointed out about writing programs is that though most people will not end up pursuing writing as a career, at least there will be a large group or generation of serious readers. 25,000 MFA students and countless undergrad writing students.
BB: It has to be something like that.
RB: So there is a ready-made group of serious readers, multiply that by how many years of the writing program boom. When I spoke with Russell Banks he was so surprised that at his reading there were so many young people showing up.
BB: I should continually qualify this because I am going to look like an elitist asshole. When I say five to ten thousand people, I don’t mean people who don’t read—
RB: Their qualification is that they read A Tragic Honesty.
BB: [both laugh heartily] Why don’t we leave it at that; that’s probably the best definition we could come up with. Cheever was saying, "Who are my readers? I have no idea. But there are all these wonderful estimable people out there." His way of putting it. And look who was talking. Here’s a guy whose The Stories of John Cheever was on the New York Times best-seller list for six months. Falconer sold in hardback, six figures. So sometimes something breaks out like that. And who are these people?
RB: That, I am sure, is what is infuriating about who is successful commercially and who is noticed. Who does know? I think there is an undocumented readership out there that occasionally does give a push to a book or trend that is beyond explanation by so-called experts.
BB: Right, fair enough.
RB: I am not presenting a cohesive argument but that it is very complicated to try to understand the cultural delivery system. The same thing in the music business. Who knows what makes a hit record? That must be why these big companies keep tossing out all this so-called product. They hope one or two will be a blockbuster. Can we put on hold the declinist apocalyptic view of literature and culture?
RB: I am hopeful and I don’t fear its disappearance or its diminution past where it has been for the past thirty or forty years. It’s more that pop and mainstream culture makes so much noise so it seems to overshadow—certainly for people who love literature—books and such. How could anyone be reading when there is all this competition?
BB: Right. To some extent there will always be people who feel an obligation to their own intellect, to their own sense of self, who nurture themselves with books. People with an acute sense of the consequences of not doing so. The atrophy of the mind and the spirit and so forth. However, without seeming overly apocalyptic about it [chuckles]—I’m afraid I’ve already gone there—but, yes, the culture is extremely noisy and it’s going to become continuously more so rather than less. Computers are an enormous distraction. As are many channels of TV you don’t even have to pay for anymore. I live in Waldo, Florida—it’s this Lil’ Abner rural community in north central Florida—and they may not have potatoes to eat for dinner but they have a satellite dish to watch TV with. They will go without dinner, but they sure as hell will not go without the idiot box.
BB: And in Waldo you don’t get any stations. Jacksonville is the nearest city. So you have the satellite dish, so no matter how poor you are you get it. So that’s the culture we’re in. I don’t want to sound any doomful alarms here [laughs], but yeah, you are going to see a decline in literacy. I was a teacher for many years and I have seen it firsthand.
RB: Perhaps that’s an endless debate that we won’t resolve here. What about the possibility of making a movie based on Yates’s life?
BB: Boy, I would certainly endorse that project.
RB: Does it strike you, with your deep familiarity with his life, that there is a movie there?
BB: I think so. I’ve been told otherwise. Janet Maslin, for one, who reviewed my book for the Times, used to be a film reviewer and she liked my book and—
RB: Didn’t she complain about the title?
BB: That was her one caveat. "Marred by its drab title" [both laugh]. A lot of people didn’t like the title.
RB: It seems right to me.
BB: Me too. And they thought it maudlin and portentous. I didn’t really mean that it was tragic that he was so honest. I meant that his honesty conformed to a tragic vision of life. And it was going to be called A Terrible Honesty from Raymond Chandler’s quote about people who were self destructively forthright. But that title was taken by Ann Douglas’s book in ’95. So I decided, what the hell, let’s call it A Tragic Honesty. But anyway, Janet Maslin assured me there is no movie. I think there is.
RB: What does she know?
BB: Who knows? One guy—he is kind of in the family in an oblique way that I won’t go into—he is a vice president at AOL Time Warner and he is on the creative end of the business and he is wanting to develop some film projects and he was initially interested and then he wasn’t, and he never explained why.
RB: As a film project it’s not something that jumps out at you like an Elmore Leonard novel. Again, in talking to Russell Banks, it took a long time to get Affliction made as a movie. And The Sweet Hereafter doesn’t exactly sing out as a commercial film.
BB: You asked about Yates’s life, but Yates’s books are being adapted, in a big way.
RB: Who owns Lie Down in Darkness?
BB: Who knows? The screenplay was published as a book by Ploughshares in ’85. It’s such a terrific screenplay. But who knows what’s going to happen. But Revolutionary Road is being produced by the BBC, greenlighted—so this is actually going to happen. Ellen Barkin is trying really hard to produce Easter Parade.
RB: How hard could it be for a woman who is married to a very wealthy man [Ron Perelman]?
BB: Who I wrote about for Spy magazine way back when in a very disparaging way.
RB: [laughs] You referred to him as a short-fingered vulgarian?
BB: [laughs] No, that epithet was entirely for Donald [Trump]. What did I say? I can’t remember but I was really mean. Oh! He was married to Claudia Cohen at the time and she was absolutely despicable.
RB: Before Patricia Duffy?
BB: Claudia Cohen was either his second or his third wife. And they were building this—
RB: Look where we have gone. Look where we have gone in this conversation.
BB: [both laugh] Oh, I know. They were building this huge hideous mansion in Palm Beach and Claudia Cohen just terrorized the contractors. She’d say, "I want this doorway a quarter inch"—and this is true—"a quarter-inch wider. So you have to do it all over again." And she did that sort of thing on a daily basis.
BB: Horrible people. How did we get there, yeah? So anyway. Three books and one’s going to definitely be made into a movie and two will probably—
RB: What is Barkin’s interest? Is she a reader?
BB: Yeah. They did an interview, maybe in the LA Times, and she loves the book and she is not even proposing she be in it. She wants to produce it. It’s a great chick novel. Big time.
RB: The book came out in Britain recently and we have already communicated on this but I found it somewhat infuriating that in my small part of the literary web world your book was not paid attention to until James Wood reviewed it in for the Guardian. And when it was mentioned, your name wasn’t.
BB: I haven’t been getting a lot of attention on the web. One guy wrote; the title of his piece was "Poor Fucking Richard Yates."
RB: [both laugh]
BB: And it was a derisive piece. So that wasn’t very nice. As I mailed you in response, I am grateful for any attention I get and I would be a consummate ingrate if I were to object to the amount of attention I got. The book got an enormous amount of attention. It’s true on the web that literary bloggers didn’t pick it up until James Wood, but it was reviewed all over the place.
RB: That’s just another example of the disjunctions that occur. I am not really faulting anyone. Things like that happen.
BB: That’s why I am not inclined to carp about that. And whatever the sales were of A Tragic Honesty, and they weren’t bad for that sort of thing, but bad given the amount of attention it got. It did lead to the next one. And that is a much bigger deal. I did not want to go back to teaching.
RB: A much bigger deal for you?
RB: Same publishing house?
BB: No, Knopf. Without going into vulgar sums, I got considerably more than I got for the Yates book. And yes it’s enough to live on and that’s good. So who cares what the sales were, and it did lead to that.
RB: Maybe you are buying into the same mentality that is rampant in the book business. Which is that the book only has a certain window to be a success. It’s possible that your book will be the standard, the authoritative book on an author who will or should, as you argue, get his due? And thus further sales may be greater over the long haul. Is it likely other people will write books on Yates?
BB: I deliberately wrote it in such a way that I am not leaving anything left over for anyone else.
RB: Monica could write a book, My Life with My Dad, Richard Yates.
BB: She could indeed. It comes dangerously close to that issue that we labored into the ground about the five to ten thousand, but you do have these people who do give you a lot of credit, and who really felt strongly about the Yates book and were willing to . . . I waited seven months to sell the Yates proposal. My new high-powered second agent—after I fired the other one—he sent it [the Cheever proposal] to five publishers and all of them bid and it was over in about thirty hours.
BB: Yeah. My advice to your readers is Cheever’s advice to his fellow aspiring writers: "Fuck a good agent." That’s what you gotta do. I did not, for the record, fuck my agent.
RB: [both laugh] That’s very useful. You just were married weren’t you?
BB: Yeah, yeah. We just had our first child about four months ago.
RB: Actually you should be related to your agent.
BB: I am staying here in Brookline with the mother of Sarah Bynum, who is one of the five fiction finalists for the National Book Award. There’s been all this malarkey about it’s a shame they nominated these obscure writers of whom only one has sold more than a thousand copies, because it makes the publishing business all the more difficult. When you are spending big money on name writers and they don’t get the awards—
RB: Yeah, I have seen that commentary.
BB: It’s an outrage. It’s bogus. But Sarah has this totally noncommercial book that she wrote, Madeline is Sleeping, which is extraordinary but it’s highly esoteric. She is a writer’s writer.
RB: Let’s say original.
BB: Utterly original. And she got big money for that first novel.
RB: From Harcourt and Andre Bernard.
BB: He’s a venerable person. When you have a [good] agent it just makes all the difference in the world. She has a terrific agent and he is not only able to sell an experimental and challenging first work of fiction, but able to get good money for it and get the PR wheels greased and so on.
RB: I hope there is a backlash to these idiotic claims that there is something wrong with nominating these five books. So they are five NYC women. What does that mean?
BB: What in the hell does that mean?
RB: Maybe there is some implicit anti-Semitic slur?
BB: [laughs] Hymietown. And they are suggesting that all five of these finalists are these come-out-of-nowhere tyros. Sarah is the only first novelist of the bunch. The others are in their forties and fifties and have written an armful of books. And this is what it’s all about—getting serious judges like Stewart O’ Nan and Rick Moody, good guys and great writers who are going to award, purely, [repeats with emphasis] purely on the basis of merit. What is the self-interest on their part? This was a great thing to happen.
RB: Somebody suggested [perhaps in the Christian Science Monitor] that Moody was getting his revenge on Dale Peck for these obscure writers. Farfetched? Yes. But perhaps this ridiculous contretemps helps lift these writers out of obscurity. So why Cheever?
BB: He would have been an almost hackneyed but natural progression for me because he is another great chronicler of the middle class. And I seem to be making a small name for myself as a chronicler of middle-class chroniclers, so there you have it.
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing