Dagoberto Gilb on The Flowers

Dagoberto Gilb

This is the third or fourth installment of what I hope is a lifelong ongoing conversation with Los Angeles-born writer Dagoberto Gilb that began around his publication of The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuna in the mid-1990s. Filling out Gilb’s oeuvre are The Magic of Blood, Woodcuts of Women, Gritos (winner of a PEN/Hemingway award) and his recently published novel The Flowers. Having for years worked as a carpenter, Gilb came late to the writerly life—some features of which he eschews, though he has been, for the last few years, teaching at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University-San Marcos) and a (more or less) frequent contributor to smart magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Best American Essays and The Threepenny Review.

Meeting Raymond Carver in the late ’70s, Gilb turned down an offer to attend the University of Iowa Creative Writing Program, oblivious to, “What [Carver] was telling me, what I came to learn over the next decade, was the way the system works. You go to Iowa, you turn your story into a professor, who’s a famous writer. And that famous professor-writer gets you to an editor. Whereas I was under the misconception that you put things in the mail, and some editor reads it and (something) happens, if it was good. I don’t know where my life would have been if I’d known what [Carver] was talking about. On the one hand, I suffered for not getting published. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have the material I have now.”

Gilb’s most recent opus, The Flowers, is set in an LA-like metropolis at a time not unlike the ’90s when riots overwhelmed that city. Teenaged Sonny Bravo lives with Silvia, his drop-dead beauty of a mother, and when as a kind of survival tactic she marries an Okie named Cloyd who owns a building named Las Flores, the potent ingredients of Gilb’s creation are ready to play out another riotous American story.

In the conversation that follows Dagoberto Gilb and I talk about Mexico, Juan Rufo, Cormac McCarthy, the rigors of teaching, the next phase, immigration or anti immigration, Annie Proulx and this and that.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you in danger of becoming some kind of establishment figure now [that you] have a regular teaching job—are you tenured?

Dagoberto Gilb: I would hope so, at some point.

RB: Where are you?

DG: I don’t know where I am—

RB: What school are you teaching at—?

DG: I’m in Fresno right now.

RB: I guess it’s not safe to trust the book’s dust jacket.

DG: I’m not there either. I guess I am a full professor at Texas State University.

RB: Professor Dagoberto Gilb.

DG: Isn’t that ridiculous?

RB: Did you ever imagine that?

DG: I had wished that—but I thought I would be a Doctor of Philosophy. [A professor] of deep thinking—

RB: As opposed to telling stories.

DG: Yeah, whatever the hell it is I am supposedly doing.

RB: Are Tim O’Brien and Tom Grimes still there?

DG: Yeah, and Denis Johnson was just there.

RB: For a semester?

DG: He spent a year there and finished his book there, too—Tree of Smoke.

RB: Did you see the prickly review of Johnson in The Atlantic?

DG: No.

RB: Do you read reviews?

DG: I try not to. I read reviews of other people’s books if that’s what you are getting at. I like reading reviews not for the truth element but as a form of writing—I don’t even know what they mean. We have reached this juncture in the country where nothing is what it is supposed to be. Who knows, books aren’t books anymore. I don’t know what we are up to. We’re in a new phase.

RB: They aren’t video games. Movies are—this piece in The Atlantic about Denis Johnson—I couldn’t read all of it, as the first paragraph was off-putting. The writer claimed that Johnson had become the darling of literary types, through some kind of voodoo and he couldn’t understand why—he was very dismissive of Johnson and his body of work. Expending two thousand words denigrating Johnson didn’t seem like a productive activity—certainly reading it wasn’t.

DG: I guess so. I have no idea. Press is press. Denis has been a cult figure for so long and so cult figures get the anti-cult response.

RB: He won a big award for Tree of Smoke.

DG: It’s funny—I haven’t read it. I was in a bookstore and I held it for the first time—

RB: I read sixty pages into it and [it] seemed inviting—I liked where it was going.

DG: I have no idea yet. There are a few books like that, that I want to read.

RB: Like?

DG: I was thinking about this. I hate all that. I don’t even want to go there—who I want to read, who I have read, all that.

RB: Why?

DG: I don’t know. Because it seems like a game of promoting your friends, who you know. And, I read weird shit.

RB: I am fascinated by how people come to the things that they read. I am saturated with current books and collateral information about them—and most newspapers are reviewing the same two dozen books.

DG: Right, it seems like it—if they are reviewing any.

RB: So how does one find out what’s off the path?

DG: Right. Like I said, we are in this strange phase. I don’t want to name names, but—I am in a bookstore looking at what they are promoting—and it’s like, [I pick up a book] I don’t know who it is—I’ve heard the name. And I don’t understand it and I read a graf. I see a whole page of virtually Dostoyevskian dialogue.

Dagoberto Gilb in black and whiteRB: [laughs]

DG: And I’m like, “Could that be good?” It is unique. [laughs]

RB: Wislawa Szymborska (the poet) has a small book out called Non-Required Reading. It is a collection of short pieces on books. She explains that she noticed the books her fellow reviewers liked were not the ones that sold in the bookstores—it was the oddball titles that book buyers seemed to find useful. So she started to look at these books and writing about them, finding interesting things to say about them.

DG: That sounds fun to me. I was asked by The National Book Critics Circle, did I have an opinion on the books of the last four months—and I am like, “I’m just coming out of the ’30s, what are you talking about?” The newest? I am not a book reviewer: You get these piles. How many a week do you get? And I am not in that position so I am just catching up with my own reading.

RB: I’m happy to hear about anything that anyone is reading. Current or not. I just stumbled across a book that came out three years ago—Dominion by Calvin Baker.

DG: I know that guy.

RB: Great book.

DG: I haven’t read that book, but he lives in Mexico City. I just came from Mexico City. Lately I have been in this strange place where I am reading nonfiction—like reading magazines in Mexico and just not wanting to read the normal—but I am not always reading. Sometimes it’s about my walking. About my note taking. I do find—just recently, I’m sure many people have said this much better, but I was thinking about this because I knew it would come up, like, “What have I read?” When I have taught, students talk about their history as if it’s the history of the books they’ve read—that is completely not my story. I am described as a physical writer—it’s about my physical experiences, whether they be tactile or something like that. They are not out of my imagination or not out of my intellect, necessarily. It’s about what things have slapped me around. It’s about what things have struck me—and I mean physically struck me in movement and in motion. I kind of have been enjoying that in the last year. Just my physical life—and that could just be walking and encountering strange…I have been reading Neruda’s poetry. I was in this poet’s office, his departemento in Mexico City, and I’d never read Neruda. So I decided to read him in Spanish. And I’d read like two poems a day and just ponder that and move along.

RB: Besides the log rolling for your friends, are you resisting the competition that seems implicit? “You read this?” “Well I read that.”

DG: Right.

RB: There is also a way of speaking about reading that makes it exalted and separate from our lives.

DG: You go through phases. Like I said, I feel graced that I get published at all. Part of it is that I am like a literary reporter—I don’t report the same kind of journalism that comes out as fiction or non-fiction. But I am just on this, whatever my little version of an adventure is, as much as I can afford. [laughs] And just logging it.

RB: Why are you doing all this traveling?

DG: Hmm.

RB: Restless?

DG: Maybe that’s what it would be called. Yeah, new stage, new phase. Trying to move off the teaching circuit, which is a tar pit.

RB: [laughs] I’ve never heard it called that, that’s good.

DG: And I am finally getting free of that to move my brain to some new place. I’m not sure yet where. I want to start writing again. So I am forcing myself physically to get out of it—not be trapped by health insurance, not be trapped, my son graduated from Stanford, so the money—

RB: Wait a minute—the last time we talked he just started there—

DG: Maybe. That sounds right. That was like a big, “Okay.” And so that kind of thing is happening, so what am I going to do now?

RB: Well, what are you going to do now?

DG: I am just going to try to—

RB: Where are you going to do it?

DG: I’m not sure. I am not positive. There are options. It might be Austin. It might not be. I want to be in Mexico a lot more. Mexico City, the country, I’m moving my brain. I want to shift my whole territory. If McCain wins, which seems plausible, we’ll go from the Germans to the Nazis. We are the Germans now and it’s going to be shameful—

RB: If Obama—if the Democrats win?

DG: It’ll be better. Sure, it would be better.

RB: We may have health insurance, after all. You have a nice, well-regarded body of work, and after all this time, you still feel lucky to be published?

DG: More lucky than ever. Well, the more I see how this business operates, the more fortunate I feel. I worry that my publisher will say, “This dude is not selling.” I mean, this business is tough. People like me from the West, we have particularly difficult time. I don’t know many writers especially well. It’s a difficult business. I do know a lot of successful writers. I always feel like the janitor [around them], I’m still sweeping up.

[both laugh]

DG: “I gotta go wax the floor, I’ll be right back.”

RB: You have a new book—it took how long to write?

DG: It depends on when you say you begin something.

RB: From the first germ of the idea? When you first thought about Sonny Bravo—

DG: I’ve had some ideas about him for a decade but first pen to paper was about five years ago and then I really got at it recently. Within the last two to three years. I actually finished a version two years ago. I didn’t know if I was really done. And then I went back. I took more time with it—not necessarily with the writing, but I’d let it sit for a while. Not knowing what to do—if I got it right. I wanted to make sure I had what I wanted.

RB: So when you let it sit for a while and went back to it, what happened?

DG: I’d usually pick at it [laughs] like a scab. No—add this, take away that, trying to figure out what I was wanting. Not my usual approach to writing a book. At least my idea. And I have a couple that are in a drawer, but I went a little further with this one and I realized I’d finished months before—that “Oh, the ending was over here.” Things that I don’t normally think about when I am writing.

RB: And then you turned it in to your publisher. Who talks to you about it there?

DG: Morgan [Entrekin]. Who knows what a different editor would say—I tend to be such a—I compress. I know I write stories that are unique to me and I can tell you a story, everything, and you won’t write it. It’s not like a screenplay, not about the gadgets and the gimmicks that you can pull off. The plot structure is mine alone—it’s none of [the gimmicks] for me. This book came out in 250 pages. A better me would have made it 400—it’d still have to be a clone of me, a little more expansive—

RB: You’re the guy who told me a few years ago you would try to figure out a way of making Tolstoy’s War and Peace shorter—

DG: Yeah. That’s exactly me. That’s me. That’s what I do. I don’t know if people like that. I’m not sure they get it.

RB: I don’t know that length speaks to the size or power of a story.

DG: Not for me—I truly don’t think that. My favorite books from The Stranger to The Family of Pascual Duarte—all my favorite books happen to be shorter. Dostoyevsky is always the exception—I started reading him again, thinking, “God, I’d cut this. I’d cut that.” [laughs]

RB: Do you take him to class and do that with your students?

DG: Never. They have me as a teacher, but I don’t know how in the hell to teach. I don’t know how to teach anything. I’m not a literature teacher. I never studied literature, and I wouldn’t feel confident that I am even right about any of the things I like or do. It’s much more on the street—well, that’s a little too strong. More going into a bookstore and randomly pulling books down. My history of learning was sneaking books, studying philosophy and religion classes and going over to the different varying language departments—what they were teaching—and I’d find books there I’d want to read—”That looks like an interesting book and someone is teaching it.” I did use that as a criteria that it was considered important enough to be taught. I’d learn that way. Like Stendhal—how would you learn about Stendhal? Classics like that. Stuff they were into that we are not into anymore. Class and Race. Like Mexican movies—they are so much about class and race. We don’t have that in literature anymore, The publishers have lost a sense of class and race. They presume it doesn’t exist and they are so ridiculously wrong.

gilb photo

RB: Earlier today Cuba [RB’s son] and I talked to Howard Zinn

DG: I love him. He’s a brilliant guy.

RB: A very decent man. Anyway, it occurred to me that if you addressed certain progressive issues you were accused of political correctness. And taken off the board, not to be talked about.

DG: That was people not liking anything progressive and the way to dismiss it was to call it “political correctness” and then you couldn’t have the discussion anymore.

RB: What does it mean?

DG: It aggravates me. I had an argument with Stanley Crouch about that a few years ago—specifically about that. The first time I met him I knew nothing about his political positions. He is a curious guy—very smart. We had a good time. I didn’t know he was such a right-winger. But he is still smart and interesting and just because he is wrong—

RB: He is something of an iconoclast, with far-ranging interests. He did reportedly slap Dale Peck—

DG: I didn’t know that. I don’t know if Dale Peck should be slapped, but I do think of some writers, it would be good for them to realize they could be slapped—somebody could get mad and it would turn into like, “Shut the fuck up!” And finally it isn’t all just words. That’s what I mean—physical behavior is part of the deal.

RB: That reminds me of a writer who was at a book gathering and walked up to another writer who had criticized his book and spit in his face.

DG: That, I think, sucks.

RB: Right. There was much outrage expressed, and I thought, “Wait a minute, it is outrageous and overboard, but consider that the reaction was to his life’s work being trashed”—

DG: The spitting is what I disapprove of and would, of course, depend on how well he did it. But like Michiko Kakatani—she’s amazing, she attacks with such eloquence and she hates with such eloquence, it’s almost interesting when she hates—which she does—some books.

RB: I remember Robert Stone saying he never learned anything from any of her reviews. I don’t read her or most critics. I find more useful to read other writers, Jim Harrison on Karl Shapiro or Thomas McGuane on Per Petterson.

DG: Those would be fascinating. One of my pleasures was to write on Cormac McCarthy once. Stuff like that is valuable, and I am fan of Cormac’s style, but his literary politics I don’t like, and I don’t particularly care for his vision. But I still admire his work. It’s a vision I don’t share—it’s clichéd western. As in the Wild West. It’s very clichéd. But it’s elegant.

RB: Blood Meridian is a towering book.

DG: It’s Homeric. It’s incredibly well written. I don’t understand the vision of that one. It’s so dark.

RB: I thought that the first chapter was hilarious. But anyway, it seems there is something out of whack in the critical establishment.

DG: I don’t think anything anymore about it—I can’t figure out what people like. They are good people, but what they like is so skewed I don’t know what to make of it. I’m having some kind of ailment. I really just don’t understand. And I try, and there is such a mass movement for what I consider atrocious books, that are obviously full of banners and placards…

RB: I wonder about the complaint that there is so much crap published—I find there are too many good books to read.

DG: I can’t keep up. How do the people pick the finalists or the National Book Award winner? I have been on panels and there is a ten per cent factor, that all the judges will pick this ten per cent with one or two exceptions. And there is the cream-rising thing. Then it becomes who is one and who is fifty. And when [the winner] does get picked, you are trusting the basic good taste of people who are smart and have read—in general, even in the particular case. Generally, they are important books even if they are not valuable—not the best…

dagoberto gilbRB: Has there been a book in the last few years that has knocked you out—changed your vision or turned you around?

DG: Yeah there is, but I can’t think of it right now—

RB: Do you go to movies?

DG: I’m scared to talk about movies anymore because it seems like we are all going that way—books are different, they are not movies and movies are not books.

RB: They are all just stories.

DG: A different approach. There Will be Blood, for instance. I thought what it did up to three-fifths [of the way in] is what movies can do that no fiction text writer can ever do. The death scenes in an oil rig, things like that—you cannot do very well with writing. You can’t show an oil geyser like that—you can’t show it in text whereas visually, the sound and the visceral reaction—the last two-thirds was terribly melodramatic and maudlin. And skewed in many ways. I didn’t like the last two-fifths, one-third, whatever it was. The ending I thought was completely so obvious a metaphor—did you see it?

RB: No, I wait for the DVD, theaters are little boxes. I grew up going to see movies in the palatial auditorium. I can’t go to these multiplexes.

DG: But anyway the big book I still always talk about is Juan Rulfo—I can read a story of his and be completely happy.

RB: Who?

DG: Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer. He is so amazing. I read him in Mexico in Spanish— I thought, “I’m in Mexico City, I’ll read him in Spanish.” It blew me away. Every time I read him I just can’t believe somebody could be so brilliant in such simple—coarse but simple—language. If I talk about myself and abbreviating—he’s done it so much better. I try to put a little humor in mine [my writing]. His is pretty humorless. He is just so strong.

RB: Are you gravitating to Spanish language and literature more than before?

DG: Well, maybe just recently. Just because I’m in Mexico City—a lot of it is just that. That is how I got into the writing business. Yeah, I fell in love with books, but my writing comes from liking to hear and encounter people, liking to hear stories. And so hanging around Mexico city, listening to people talk and tell stories—everyone listens to taxi drivers in Mexico. They’re fun everywhere.

RB: They are not Pakistanis in Mexico? Who is the scapegoat minority in Mexico—the Mayans (Indians)?

DG: I don’t know—

RB: Doesn’t every culture have a whipping boy?

DG: I guess so. Americans are who they talk about the most—that’s the one that I hear the most about—no, actually that’s pretty much it. Now that we are talking about it, that would be the one that is most reviled. It’s almost like a parental figure where you hate and love at the same time.

RB: What’s the saying, "So far from God, so near the United States"?

DG: Porfirio Diaz said that—the president of Mexico. It is fun to start working with—like reading poetry in another language—I grew up with some Spanish, like every Chicano—[a] sort of slobby, sloppy Spanish. Not sophisticated. Years ago the NEA asked me to be on a translation committee and I knew people who had done this. I thought, “That is so ridiculous.” That’s like asking a kid who speaks and reads, like most high school kids, in English—if you gave them a serious text and said, can you read these five?—Or even if we could read them how would you be sure that person reading Shakespeare—it’s just you don’t know Shakespeare. Like this way too difficult for the guy—he is reading some journalist’s saga of a girlfriend. It was easier to read and held his interest and he dismisses Shakespeare because of the language. Well, my sophistication of language is what, sixth or seventh grade? [laughs] And so I have to spend a lot of time—

RB: Did you learn Spanish in the way we learn English here in the US?

DG: No, I didn’t for sure and nobody offered that to anybody. I grew up in LA—my mom would have Spanish around, she would speak Spanish and I would work with people that spoke Spanish. Never reading it.

RB: No diagramming sentences? Learning parts of speech.

DG: There were kids that grew up with their parents reading Spanish—my mother didn’t read it either. But even then, in El Paso, if you were caught speaking Spanish, you got swatted—you were not supposed to speak Spanish. That era, fortunately, is over.

RB: Does it strike you the immigration—we can’t call it a conversation—

DG: The anti-immigration crusade?

RB: Is it formidable or a few cranks?

DG: No, no, it’s totally code for anti-Mexican.

RB: I skimmed a book called The Immigration Solution, writings by Victor Davis Hanson and Heather MacDonald [and Steven Malanga]—it seemed to blame Mexicans for any imaginable ill—

DG: There’s two trends, here that’s one of them. There are two things very American, uniquely American. First, the slavery era is over. Now Mexicans are discussed like slaves in that era [were], so there is the completely racist calling-Mexican-niggers-Southerners- Arizoners, Mexican is a dirty word and they want them out. Then there are the abolitionists who are sort of sympathetic—they have maid, they have a nanny and they sort of understand but are complicit with “let’s go a little slower.” That conversation is the soft abolitionist who realizes that is really a problem but “I have a nice nanny and the gardener is really good.” That’s one conversation, and then there is the virulent Minutemen type. The other is the very modern one, post-NAFTA, maybe even pre-, but that we have been outsourcing all our working class, but the curious thing with Mexicans is that we have outsourced-brought them here. So that the new working class is in our country, but we can treat them as though they are from Pakistan or Africa and treat them just like the old working-class model “We can always get more. Get rid of them, we can get more.” And the whole issue is very much pre-1930s and you have them right in our neighborhoods, cooking in New York. They are in every city, doing all the labor, waxing the floors, picking up the trash. One of the things we did at AWP—we were going to do an immigration thing, the guy I was with, Ruben Martinez, wanted to do a manifesto. And he wanted to do it and pass it out. And I thought to myself, “Well that would be cool, we just throw it out like snowflakes over AWP.” And then I thought, “We’d get a lot of janitors sweeping, and lot of gardeners with their sticks and nails and pipes and they come in sweeping up afterwards.” [laughs] We’d be helping our people.

RB: Martinez wrote a moving book, Crossing Over.

DG: He’s a good journalist.

RB: Jim Harrison wrote a great piece in Men’s Journal a few years ago about the Arizona-Mexico border which he was moved to write by the discovery of the body a pregnant nineteen-year-old woman in the desert. It’s hard to make out the self-righteousness attached to land that America stole under the heady slogan “Manifest Destiny.”

DG: I was just in Worcester, and there aren’t factories—it seems like a working-class town. I just did a piece for The Paris Review on the cornfields in Iowa. The story is about the Mexicanization of Iowa. I’m trying to find a magazine for it. The New Yorker had it for six months and didn’t want it, sadly. There are a certain segment of people there that’s not even interesting [to them]. We have gone to such a conservative base in literature. There was a widening for a while—anyway, the piece is about Mexicans picking the indigenous product of 5000 years ago and the idealogues are freaking out. But if you go there, the people hiring them love them. And, of course, as there was this manifest destiny, here was this other version, south-to-north manifest destiny, where the gods of corn have sent Mexicanos to pick the corn of Iowa in their field of dreams.

RB: I have heard the claim that it is false that Americans won’t do the work illegal immigrants are doing—

DG: If that were true all the immigration wouldn’t be happening. Whatever “illegal” means?

RB: And “alien”?

DG: Yeah, all that—once you set the word up, of course, they are guilty. It’s a human dynamic to feed your family. I’m in a class and the movie Roger and Me is about a plant closing in Flint, Michigan—the students and I talked about this and the mostly Anglo working-class students say, “Well, when you lose your job you have to get up and leave and go find work.” That’s a perfectly good American idea. It’s exactly what Mexicans do and somehow that’s a crime. That’s considered not a good impulse. But it’s human to do that. Anyway, my piece is how all this business even in the corn industry is growing in such a way that it is shrinking the corn industry in Mexico. And so as they lose their fields of work they go to the cities and then they have to migrate.

RB: Why is it shrinking in Mexico?

DG: It’s becoming corporate there, too. The lands are shrinking.

RB: I remember reading articles where people who worked in [toxic] chemical plants and knew the long-range dangers, continued to work, fearing they would not find other work.

DG: That’s another human impulse. I did versions of that myself, going into a hole, breathing cement dust, knowing—you blow your nose and it is black. And there is not much of a mystery, you can’t tell yourself it’s good for you. You just pretend it’s not bad for you, that you’ll get through it anyway. It’s not eternity. It’s just momentary and your immune system will be stronger. [laughs]

RB: You have this new book [which we haven’t talked about]. Are you restless when you have to sit here—

DG: It hasn’t really happened yet. I am just starting to read. I have read six times in the last two weeks, that’s sort of funny. But you get in that book tour routine and get used to it.

dagoberto gilb RB: Are you onto something else?

DG: Yeah, I am already into another thing and I want to turn in something quicker because I have something that’s been sitting there and I can turn it in and then I can write something bigger. I want a big period of time without chaos, to take off—not teaching—

RB: Something typically called “peace and quiet”?

DG: Yeah, I guess it’s called that. Also, not chaos, no financial worry—not something wrong that I have to deal with. I guess some people that take these teacher’s jobs, they seem to like it. It is completely not good for me—it takes me a day before to get ready, the day of it, twenty-four hours to recover. I have to turn on the TV and get really close and watch basketball games for 24 hours before I am ready to join the world again.

RB: What about readings?

DG: Readings is another thing—it’s a bit of a drunk. People staring at you. I never really got off on it, but I see some people really like the attention and I don’t know—I like it in the sense that I hope it makes the book sell so I can have [it] a little more easy. Also, I am a worker and I feel like I am employed by my publisher and I want it to do well because they have invested in me and I want to do my business right. That’s just how I look at it. I want them to be happy that I am doing it. That they are happy to have employed me. If I go to remodel a house, I want the person to be happy with my work and […] recommend me for another job. The readings are a little bit if a binge—they take a little time to get over.

RB: In last ten years, it seems like the book/reading tour is required.

DG: Yeah, it seems like it.

RB: I think about how many writers are in the skies of America on any given day—

[both laugh]

DG: I wonder if the reading circuit has shrunk.

DG: Publishers are saying they don’t want authors to go to bookstores—people aren’t attending bookstore readings.

RB: They are taken for granted. So your plan after this book tour is to go back to Mexico?

DG: That’s my plan—to work out of Mexico. Either Mexico City—I adore Mexico City—I’m not sure…

RB: Further south?

DG: Oaxaca, Mitchelaclan.

RB: Further into Central America?

DG: I’ve thought of it, but I want to get through with Mexico. I am not finished there in my brain—my brain isn’t satisfied. We’re still making out and I like that. [chuckles]

RB: The courtship.

DG: Yeah.

RB: You are still doing journalism?

DG: It’s more like literary journalism. I just finished this piece I told you about—it’s for a book called State by State—they asked me to do it. I love doing that, I wished I could do more. In that case, I had been wanting to write that piece, and I got that call, and I couldn’t believe that someone was sending me to Iowa. I did a piece on de Archivo de Indias in Seville, Spain. I turned it in two years ago for Harper’s, they commissioned me to do [it]. And they loved the piece, but they still haven’t printed it.

RB: How large are the archives?

DG: It’s a huge building but it’s had every document, invoice, receipt, everything, written by every conquistador from Columbus, Cortez, Magellan—I touched Magellan’s papers. They have it all there. It’s only known to historians and that’s the piece. I’m proud of it. It’s my piece. A smarter person would have written a smarter piece. Mine is always goofier—it’s about me being there and not knowing nine-tenths of what could possibly be there. I’m more common.

RB: You really think smarter is better?

DG: I don’t know—I’m not smart enough to know. It’s different. I reach more people like me—there’s more of me than them. There are smart people that are smart enough to get across to me and I’m impressed. I have a son who is particularly brilliant. And he is also able to explain his brilliance. Annie Proulx, a person who is utterly brilliant. It must be hard for herself to be so brilliant. She is easy to talk to, but you are overwhelmed by her brilliance—it just shines and it’s scary she’s so brilliant.

RB: Where did you meet her?

DG: Years ago she picked me for the PEN/Hemingway. There were other judges. Joanna Scott, a great writer. Various Antidotes is one of the greatest story collections. I always teach that as an example of a kind of writing I could never do but I completely admire. Completely original—where a whole world is in a teardrop. Anyway, I actually met Annie Proulx in DC because I was a PEN/ Faulkner finalist. She gave a speech and we met—of course, I was awe struck to meet her and we hung out and she has become a very good friend. Someone I can always count on—I mean, I’m embarrassed about my own crummy career compared to her. [She] always has something positive to say. She reads everything. She seems to have read every new book. I don’t know how she does it.

RB: Is there a singular project or dream that you are aiming at?

DG: One book?

RB: If it’s a book.

DG: I haven’t really fulfilled my little what-I-hoped-to–do-on-Earth-as-a-writer. I don’t know how many books that is—if it’s one or five or what, I’m still on it. I feel young. I know I’m not supposed to be feeling young, but I feel young. I don’t know if it’s because I started later or it’s just me, my outlook. I am trying to shift so I can think differently so I approach my work differently and not get caught up with other young parallel things that will distract me from the real important thing I should be doing. I know I have at least two other things I want to write that I am excited about writing and [that] I am looking forward to doing and sitting with, and I am not going to talk about. I have only focused four or five months once [on it] where I had uninterrupted time.

RB: What did it feel like?

DG: It’s been so long I don’t remember. I’m curious how this book will be received. There doesn’t seem to be a market for me, necessarily.

RB: Originals make their own markets. I hope we talk the next time around.

DG: I hope it’s sooner.

RB: Thanks.

© 2008 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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