David Shields has published seven books: two novels, Dead Languages and Heroes, a short story collection, A Handbook For Drowning, and three works of non-fiction, Black Planet, Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro and Remote, and his latest genre-blurring book, Enough About You: Adventures In Autobiography. His writing has appeared in numerous publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine and Harper’s to McSweeney’s and Salon. Shields grew up in San Francisco and attended Brown University and the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. He lives with his family in Seattle, where he is a professor of English at the University of Washington. He is at work on his next book, tentatively entitled The Body Politic.
Enough About You is a collage of 22 ruminations on the impulse to write about oneself. These pieces cover a wide territory, yet manage to zero in on the appeals and limits of the memoiristic gesture. David Shields describes Enough About You: “It is a meta-memoir or perhaps an anti-memoir, an ‘intervention’ of sorts into memoir mania, an attempt to step back from all the confessionality and talk about the impulse to confess. The momentum or arc of the book derives for me from the way in which I start out imprisoned within myself and, step by step, wind up compelled by any number of people and things outside of myself. ‘Autobiography’ can take one very far out into the world. It’s also a book in which a writer takes the reader into his study and is unusually candid about how he turns his life into narrative, or makes his life his work.”
Editor’s note: This conversation began some time before the recorder was turned on. In those pre-historic moments Shields and Birnbaum reminisced about their last meeting in 1996, when they had met on the occasion of Shields’ book tour for Remote and did a little catch up. From there the talk moved to Birnbaum’s recollection of his interview with author Alan Furst (The Night Kingdom, Red Gold, The World at Night).
Robert Birnbaum: “…I’m doing really specific stuff, focusing on a certain period of history.”
David Shields: The Cold War or something?
RB: In between the World Wars. Anyway, what I got from Furst’s remarks was that he felt everybody has a singular, specific talent and their task was to find someplace to fit that talent—I haven’t found that yet. I had it when I was running the magazine…
DS: Stuff felt right to me. It really did.
RB: Yeah, it felt right to me, too. I guess I took it for granted. I took for granted that I could go on, that I had something that I could continue with. The fact is, the world of visionary publishing has contracted.
DS: You mean post-economic bust?
RB: No, no.
DS: Or just culturally?
RB: Yeah, culturally.
DS: Right, I know what you mean.
RB: There is more of a requirement to be niched. I don’t quite understand why or how that proves out.
DS: I guess it’s the nature of capitalism as capitalism has gotten more specialized. It’s true in the academic world and everyone is specialized into a tinier and tinier box. The bookstores have a tinier and tinier generic label that you can fit into. It’s interesting even how people cast movies. It’s obvious that they are cast in such a way that character X is trying to appeal to the demographic age 40 to 60, character Y is appealing to 20 to 40 and character Z is appealing to age 10 to 20. It’s just an absolute commercial entity. And that’s different from making The Godfather in 1972. To me capitalism has filled all the cracks. Before, there were tiny margins of freedom that you could find that were quasi-bohemian or quasi-experimental and somehow the culture had room for that freedom. As capitalism has gotten so globalized and relentless—it’s not totally unrelated to 9/11—in the sense a lot of what people abroad hate about America is the relentless push of capitalism to fill Coca-Cola stands in every Egyptian marketplace. I’m just sort of making insane connections here—
RB: I believe you are (laughs).
DS: On the domestic front, capitalism is so relentless that in the same way there is less room for projects—books, films that are not filling a direct capitalist need.
RB: I have this conversation with lots of writers—in terms of predictions of gloom and doom—many writers believe that good books will continue to be published, that good books will find a publisher. Whether or not they are successful, who can say? I don’t know that I agree with you that the capitalist engine is so out of control that it precludes the possibility of a creative culture or creative products. It doesn’t keep you from writing.
DS: Or publishing.
RB: And whatever I do that’s off the beaten path, I am still able to do it.
DS: Right, exactly. You’re right, I was exaggerating to make a point. Perhaps the audience has gotten…
RB: Well, the audience is a different story.
DS: There certainly is a difference whereby as publishing has gotten conglomeratized, as bookstores are driven by a couple of large chains, there are essentially several niches into which your books can fill—a mystery or a thriller or a certain kind of commercial novel. I’m not sure that the kind of books that I write like Black Planet or Remote or Enough About You—it’s not like these books were ever meant to be big best sellers. They are books, which I needed to write, which I took great pleasure and pride in writing. [They] probably appeal to a certain kind of audience that is interested in…
DS: In thinking, in formal adventure, in cultural investigation, in personal investigation. Whatever. What’s the point [I’m trying to make]? It does seem that books—think of a book by Richard Brautigan’s. Trout Fishing In America. It’s a wonderful book. It was quite popular in its time. Sold millions of copies in paperback. If you are Dave Eggers, you are thinking, “Hey, I can write a strange book and still be successful.” That book had a huge story behind it.
RB: The Eggers book or Brautigan’s book?
DS: It [Eggers’ book] had a great story to tell beneath all its formal experiments. But it does seem like those books can still be published. My books are still published by Random House and Simon and Schuster; these are huge conglomerates. Bertelsmann and Viacom are two gigantic global companies that are publishing my stuff, maybe as loss leaders.
RB: Well, of course people argue that the Anne Rices, Michael Crichtons, Stephen Kings and so on allow their publishers to publish wonderful books that seem to have no commercial potential. What I am getting out of what you are saying is that what we end up having a blockbuster mentality where a movie opens up on 3000 screens, so where does that leave the thoughtful, well-crafted documentary about Serbia? An art house in Boise, Idaho? This blockbuster mentality seems to give these things a limited shelf life. That’s true for the blockbusters. I don’t think it’s true for books like yours. I just interviewed a woman who wrote a book called A Problem from Hell. It’s about American policy towards genocide. Her ambition for the book is that it stimulates public discourse and affect policy. For that to happen it has to get read. People have to talk about it. Will that happen? In the short term, who knows? But it’s an important book and I think it will get noticed. We started to conjecture about what are the kinds of books that do influence policy—The Shame of the Cities or Tartabull’s The History of Standard Oil or The Jungle? What was the last book that did that? Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On? Does that even happen anymore?
DS: It’s a lot about breaking through the clutter. How does one do that? It’s hard to say. I’m not sure how this book would or could. This book is an attempt to break through one clutter, which is memoirmania. Instead of producing one more memoir about my dysfunctional childhood or whatever, it’s an attempt to step back from memoirmania and think about the memoiristic gesture. What does it mean to write about yourself? To what degree is this a solipsistic enterprise? To what degree are we all solipsists? To what degree can solipsism be transfigured into something that embraces the world? To what degree can you embrace the world and still abuse the world as a reflection back upon yourself? I try to push the memoir toward a more figurative way. Instead of it being a literal-minded, 300-page narrative about your pappy in west Texas, it’s a more plastic sense of self. Maybe you can write 20 pages about Bill Murray but have him be an odd reflection back on yourself. You can write a collage that’s really about the nature of language but sneak in glimpses of yourself. The book is a disguised polemic of sorts.
RB: What’s disguised about it?
DS: Instead of it being a 200- or 300-page didactic text that says that the old memoir is boring, it’s not an academic treatise. It’s disguised to undiscerning readers. To me it’s pretty clear what the agenda of the book is.
RB: Will this book be read by undiscerning readers?
DS: Probably not (both laugh).
RB: It seems to me that this argument is implicit is all your books.
DS: That’s a good point.
RB: You are very clear on your or the author’s presence in all the work that he or she creates.
DS: That’s true. You are right. It’s implicit in Remote. It’s a little bit less true in Dead Languages because it’s a novel.
RB: Before you got bored with fictional conventions. (laughs)
DS: Something like that. I am bored with fictional conventions. It really interests me as to how that happened. But many writers share my boredom.
RB: Are you bored when you read?
DS: I can’t tell you the last novel I read. I can read novels that are highly generically confused, like W.G. Sebald or V.S. Naipaul or books like that. Say Franzen’s The Corrections; I couldn’t read that if my life depended on it. Just that kind of cozily defined novel. They may be good novels or bad novels, but something has happened in my imagination, it doesn’t yield to the un-ironic embrace of novelistic form. That gesture seems to me, really quaint right now.
RB: You are in an odd place, I think. I did read The Corrections which I was amused by.
DS: Is it good?
RB: I don’t use that terminology. I read it and found it amusing and found observations that were useful. I do think it’s worth reading. Is it good? I don’t know. Did you say in your book you were bored by 100 Years of Solitude?
DS: In the prologue I talk about traveling and having 2 books in my backpack, Proust and Garcia Marquez. Obviously, it would be absurd to say that 100 Years of Solitude isn’t a wonderful book. All I can say is that reading them side by side, what Proust did—a kind of the microscopic investigation of real life—seemed enthralling to me and set me on a path over the next 20 years, in a way that Garcia Marquez seemed wonderful but completely irrelevant to my project, or even to my literary strains. But tell me about how I am in an odd place or space?
RB: The consistency of your meta-interest in writing makes it harder for you—you said it. You may be the only writer I know who can’t seem to read contemporary fiction, who is bored by it—because it exemplifies things that you just…
DS: On the one hand I think it’s probably a phase. For 15 years I wrote fiction quite seriously. I wrote three or four books that could be called fiction. Even though they were extremely autobiographical, especially Dead Languages and a collection of stories called A Handbook for Drowning. An interesting break for me was writing Remote. Believe it or not, it started out as a novel, and I couldn’t get the novelistic equipment to start to work. I kept on trying to make a gesture to bring in a female character. Every time that I made that gesture it seemed not related to what I really wanted to do. I wanted to meditate in my typically ambivalent way on my love-hate affair with pop culture. Every time I came back to the essayistic gesture it felt right. Every time I went into a novelistic mode with a scene or dialogue, I felt like I was joking. It didn’t seem right. Ever since then I have felt like Alice down the rabbit hole where I can not crawl back up on firm ground and believe again in the novel-novel.
I still read a lot of fiction. Sebald’s books are published as fiction. Naipaul’s book The Way of the World is published in England as a work of fiction. I read a lot of fiction on my job as a teacher of creative writing. I read friends’ manuscripts all the time. I read fiction a lot but all I mean [about what I can’t read] is the straight-laced, well-made novel by someone who everyone agrees is a good writer but in which the conventions of the work are not being worked with and warped, in which some sense of reality isn’t intruding on the thing. One can make a whole argument as to why that’s true. I have several reasons. One, I think it’s just in my DNA with both of my parents having been journalists. I have a strong reality gene. I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in this other world. People say, “Why did you read this novel?” “Oh, it was so fascinating to have the whole book take place in Greenland and it was so amazing to exist in that world.” That doesn’t interest me that much. What really interests me is human consciousness. I am really interested in thinking and the process and my own thoughts, in Nietzsche’s thoughts, Proust and Rousseau’s thoughts. In Dave Eggers’ thoughts, in Sebald and Anne Carson—I want to watch people think, that interests me. Finally, what happens to you and or what happens to me—there is only a certain limited set of narratives that happen within life. Certain tragedies and failures and comedies—what’s really interesting is how you think about it. For instance, you were relating the story about the magazines you had been through and some domestic ups and downs and there would be an umber of ways in which one could think about it. Someone could tell it as though it were pure farce, pure comedy. Someone could tell it as a woe-be-gone tale, or a raging injustice. What really interests me is how consciousness would wrap itself around the event.
RB: You are relying on a convenience here. It seems right to say that are a finite number of situations, but that is misleading. They all are unique.
DS: Right. When rendered carefully.
RB: Or even not. Or they are not unique when they are not rendered carefully. That’s the point at which they become cliche or generic.
DS: Sure. I am trying to figure out how to say it. I am still interested in fiction that is—all I can say is…
RB: By the way, there is no need for you defend anything here.
DS: I am trying to think it through because it is bizarre to me that I am not talking to you now about my 6th novel. All my life I wanted to be a fiction writer. I became one and then those conventions suddenly went cold on me. It really fascinates me as to why. I have lots of company. I am not a completely lone ranger here. I was just in Chicago and I was speaking to some writers there. I draw great strength from a group of writers like John D’Agata, Bernard Cooper, Wayne Koestenbaum and Sally Tisdale; a number of people who share my impulses. It basically comes down to playing to one’s strengths and disguising one’s weaknesses. I’m not that interested or good at creating amazing narratives. I’m not really that interested in creating other characters or setting scene. I have almost no interest in the visuals of place. This is pretty standard equipment for novels. I am good at or at least drawn toward thinking aloud about stuff, standing in a corner and meditating in an eloquent, comic way. I have found a way to stage my strength in this creative non-fiction or in hybrid work, the blurred genre work, The irony is that with all I am saying about fiction, half the chapters in Enough About You are made up. A lot of my favorite chapters are fiction. It’s almost as if I have to tell myself they are true and then I can relax and write what I want. If I tell myself I am writing this exalted thing called fiction I tighten up. It’s a strange phenomenon.
RB: I do share with you a skepticism about these distinctions and categories. A discerning or devoted reader just wants to read good writing. That good writing is judged by things that are interesting to you, presented in a skillful way. In your neck of the woods, [Seattle] Jonathan Raban has written two books that are as good as anything I have read in the past ten years.
DS: Yes, he’s a really good writer.
RB: He’s a good storyteller.
DS: We are pretty good friends. He has had a big influence on my work. He’s a different writer than I am. I think the fact that I have known him for the past 12 years or so has pushed me to non-fiction. He has a very strong sense of his work as being novels. He has a sense of himself that he is basically writing fiction.
RB: He certainly resents being classified as a travel writer.
DS: The first time that I met him he almost chewed my head off because—He said, “Jonathan Raban here. I’m a great fan of Dead Languages and I’d like you to come to my housewarming party.” He goes, “I don’t know if you are familiar with my work?” I said, “Oh yeah I know your work, you are a wonderful travel writer.” He virtually dis-invited me to the party. I spent the last 12 years catching up. But yes, a lot of my thinking about fiction and non-fiction and the blurring of genres comes from him. Jonathan has this sense of the continuum. On one extreme is J.R.R. Tolkien and the other is somebody’s diary. There is just a continuum along that line and most work is in the middle. Most novels are basically transfigured autobiographies. Basically what happened last year to the author. He or she recaps it as fiction, essentially a life narrative. It’s absurd to have this demarcation of fiction here and non-fiction where it’s just this elaborate continuum. I think of my book as more fictional than many novels. A lot of the stuff is made up.
RB: Why would I care, as a reader, what part of a book was autobiographical? Any book?
DS: I don’t know if you know the local filmmaker Ross McElwee. I worship at the altar of Sherman’s March. It is a great piece of work. It’s had a huge influence on my work. What a work like that does, when it is staged as work of reality it’s obviously playing with reality in all kinds of ways. Trying to stay on the ostensible subject but constantly getting lost. The reason that’s interesting is that it’s telling us something about how difficult it is to access reality, how multi layered and multi-valent it is. When a work problematizes the autobiographical gesture or the non-fictional gesture it’s asking really great philosophical questions. Like “what is real?” and “what can we know?” and “what is the self?” To me a work of self-reflexive documentary film or a work like mine, a self-reflexive autobiography, is meant to be asking really serious questions about the nature of the real. That sounds rather pretentious, but that’s why those questions are interesting.
RB: You are right they are interesting. That’s not what I am asking.
DS: You’re asking why should they care?
RB: In which books ought a reader to take note of a writer’s autobiographical profile?
DS: It’s almost like work in which the authorial self doesn’t enter the equation seems—this is perhaps extreme—to me to be almost fascistic. That they are pretending that their intelligence isn’t warping the work, that they are just creating the work out of this huge god-like presence. That, “I’m the author, in an old fashioned 19th century Tolstoian way.” That’s the kind of book I have trouble reading. I have trouble reading a third-person narration. The authors I like have the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tattooed on their forehead—the perceiver by his very presence changes what’s perceived—that’s the operative principle. I don’t care if it’s fiction or non-fiction, biography or autobiography; I need the Uncertainty Principle at the center. It’s so crucial to me. I try and tie it within this book to stuttering, as a person who grew up with a stutter and still stutters some now. I have a very self-reflexive intelligence. I had a strong reverb to my mind. So I’m not saying this [kind] of work is better, I’m just saying this is what appeals to me. In which I find a true account of reality. If it’s not making that gesture I find the work corny or naive or monumental in a way which I find too adult. The other books seem kid-like in the best sense. They are adolescent narcissism, which I think is really crucial. The moment you pretend to be this really civilized adult and you stand back to be _______ and write this imaginary novel called ________, it seems to me bizarre. I just don’t get it.
RB: I am still trying to elaborate on the “odd place” I think you are in, which I believe has everything to do with you being a practitioner. If I tried to write fiction, maybe I would have a different view of what people are attempting. But as a reader I just deal with the books and stories as I encounter them.
DS: You don’t worry whether it’s what. For me a lot of it is talking—whistling past the graveyard, if that’s the cliche-I’m just trying to stay alive as a writer and talk myself into believing what I do. A lot of it is just doing chin-ups. To say, “This is what I believe.” It’s kind of a funky aesthetic. It’s not traditional and I am constantly working through the argument telling myself this is exciting. I really do believe it. It’s not standard stuff. I was stunned that Simon & Schuster published it. I thought the book would be submitted to 300 obscure presses. Then I would be happy that Grey Moose Press in Biloxi, Mississippi wanted to publish it because it seemed to me to be a fairly unusual book. But Jeff Klusky at Simon & Schuster really got it.
RB: Are all your books in print?
DS: No, Remote is not in print, The short stories are not. My book of quotes, which I gathered of Ichiro, has a had a huge commercial life. It’s a paperback bestseller in Japan. It’s made a lot money. It’s sort of weird.
RB: When I talked to Tom McGuane he mentioned that in the ten years since he published his last novel he did a book on horses and a book on fishing. The book on fishing went into 6 hardcover printings and the horse book was #6 on Amazon.
DS: That’s hilarious. I really love the early McGuane novels a lot. I loved Ninety-Two in The Shade and Panama. Those are great books. That strong voice—I don’t care if it’s fiction or not—boy, that strong voice coming at you, so strong. I loved those books. Did you like the new one?
RB: I really liked the 2nd half. I was distracted by the specific, detailed descriptions of various aspects of horsemanship. When I suggested that he might be punishing Eastern readers, he said that he really liked the ‘concretia’ and ritual of certain activities.
DS: Was that his term, ‘concertia’? I love that. Did you like him as a person?
RB: He’s very charming and outgoing and a good storyteller.
DS: We were on to something interesting. I don’t know how interesting—I’ve published 7 books. Heroes, A Handbook for Drowning and above all Remote, which got a huge amount of attention, I really want that book to come back into print. I don’t know why. It got 75 reviews but it didn’t do as well as Knopf had hoped.
RB: You are friendly with Dave Eggers, why doesn’t McSweeney’s do a paperback?
DS: I’ve asked him to do it. He’s thought about. Dave loves that book. I’ll probably ask him again. That’s a good reminder.
RB: How did you develop a relationship with the new wave?
DS: With Eggers?
DS: Do you remember his magazine Might? I think of Might and Stuff as being these funny book ends.
RB: Yes, I called him in straight away when I saw the first issue in 1994.
DS: When Remote came out, Might interviewed me for it, on my trek to San Francisco. Then, they were courting me, “Oh my god, we know David Shields.” Dave really liked the book and really supported it and when McSweeney’s started he asked me to contribute stuff. Every now and then I pull stuff out of drawers to give to them. And then we stayed in touch.
RB: He and his circle are an interesting phenomenon.
DS: I wonder if the publishing arm of McSweeney’s makes money?
RB: When Eggers first introduced the imprint he tried to sketch out how everyone would make money with even nominal sales. He seemed to have the dollars figured out. But when the hard copy of Review first came out, McSweeney’s was offering lifetime subscriptions for $100. I bought one and shortly thereafter they figured out something because they discontinued it.
DS: Did they honor yours?
RB: For a while they didn’t. I kept on e-mailing them claiming close personal friendship with Dave Eggers and accusing them of welching out. Now I get a copy every once in a while. But the publications are well designed and have great content. I expect that they sell well on their own merits.
DS: He is who he is. He’s just a brilliant performance artist. But apparently he’s going to publish the new book he’s written under McSweeney’s. He can sort of write his own ticket.
RB: There was a strange kind of backlash after all the hooplah of A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. Anyway, enough about him. Tell me why you think 1981 is a bench mark year, why that’s the year America became recognizable as what it is?
DS: That’s a rhetorical gesture. It’s not meant to be a sociological argument. Also it fits (laughs) what I had to say. It is significant that Ronald Reagan had become president. It’s an intuition I had—it’s stolen a little bit from Mark Crispin Miller’s book of essays on media culture Boxed In—there is a sense in which the late ‘70s and the ‘80s something almost quantitative happens in the culture. What once had been like, okay there’s the network news and you watch it out of the corner of your eye. Or on Saturday night you go to a movie or occasionally glance at a copy of Esquire magazine. Something went from that to a quality of a wall-to-wallness about media culture that seemed to just happen. So quantity became quality. The actual quantitative rise of this stuff rose to such a level—something seemed ubiquitous about it. The umbrella seemed to stretch over the entire culture. That’s the feeling I wanted to convey. I was protected from all this because I led and still lead an academic existence. So I was less exposed to junk pop media culture than other people. Somebody else could say it started in 1973 for all I know, although that would be a difficult case to make. It seems like somewhere in there it went from something that was there to something that was the only there, there. So to claim that you were not part of mass culture seemed a harder and harder and harder position to take. Obviously, a Sanskrit scholar at Harvard may still not have heard of Britney Spears, but those people are becoming fewer and fewer.
RB: I talked to Nicholas Dawidoff recently who had spent a year in Berlin. He has no TV and never has. No cell phone or e-mail. He did seem to understand that there was such a thing as Ozzy Osbourne. So that stuff is out there in the ether. By the way, how do you explain Ozzy Osbourne?
DS: It goes to reality hunger. People are so hungry for the real. There are a number of layers. One, he was famous beforehand. It’s like a tabloid version of—you are walking out of the market and see the dish that Julia Roberts hates her ex-boyfriend. It’s fun. Someone defined comedy as pulling Socrates off of his pedestal. It’s really important to pull gods off of their pedestal. To remind the populace that they are just plain folks. That’s a huge thing. That it’s Ozzy Osbourne, not Robert Birnbaum or David Shields. He is a famous figure.
RB: He’s famous for eating live rodents on stage. Hardly Socrates.
DS: He is definitely a bad boy, so that all the people between 55 and 40 would know him. Kids younger would know him because he is like a god of their parents. Second, it does plug into the Ross McElwee/David Shields thing of reality TV. Of course, it’s highly framed. I should probably watch it so I can talk about it. Apparently Ozzy swears a lot. That carries cachet, oddly, to a 15-year-old kid who likes to hear the word ‘fuck’. That’s fun. It’s also an important flipping upside down of the sit-com. It has been the raison d’etre of TV since 1955 so that Ozzy is the Dad as schlemiel. Tell me if I’m right you have watched the show.
RB: No, just nanosecond snatches.
DS: Is it hard to watch?
RB: It is for me. I can watch a few minutes of WWF because of the way it’s scripted and curiosity about why that resonates with such a huge audience.
DS: That is a fascinating phenomenon. What very deep primitive cultural things are being expressed by that? It’s worth writing about. Tell me about your few moments of watching Ozzy?
RB: He’s a bozo. And I didn’t find any of his family’s activities interesting. Nor are the other reality shows any more interesting, to me.
DS: I never watch any of those either.
RB: Now I hear that Sybil Shepard and others have offered themselves up for such shows.
RB: Someone recently predicted to me that soon all TV would be would be reality programming. The ultimate of that would be crime as it is happening: the security cams in convenience stores would be hooked in and there is probably an armed robbery happening every minute in this country we could watch them as they are happening.
DS: We are not far from that.
RB: That’s pop culture. What I think is to be feared is that it may blot out so called high culture such as written narratives.
DS: I don’t see it as an affront. I see it as one more way to get at what’s real. When forms die, they die for good reason. Because they are no longer articulating or conveying what it is like to be alive. If there is such a thing, a well-written sitcom and it is as interesting as the unscripted Ozzy Osbourrne show—forms are there to serve the culture in the sense that they have to be conveying what it is like to be alive now. If the Osbourne show conveys something about that it is a challenge to writers. The gestures that that show makes is closer to the gestures that I am interested in than a show like say—the Seinfeld show is probably the Osbourne show divided by 4, in the sense that the Seinfeld show at least started out to be about nothing. Then it became this highly plotted show. The Osbourne Show sounds like it really is about nothing. It’s about how Ozzy can’t get the remote to work. There is something very Beckett like about that, reducing life to absolutely nothing. I’m probably giving it way too much credit.
RB: It might be interesting if that were the case. But then you have to do the hard work of watching it. At a gut level either you can or you can’t.
DS: Right, right. All I care about is stuff that feeds me. Thinking about the Osbourne show or WWF, it’s kind of interesting to me. But I’m not sure I’m going to subject myself to actually watching the damn thing. It’s like that filmmaker who I find theoretically interesting but frame by frame, he is appallingly boring—I can’t remember his name. His work is wonderful to think about and tedious to watch.
RB: Like many performance artists.
DS: Like Karen Finley. I’m not interested in her work but I kind of like the idea of Karen Finley. I’m hoping my work isn’t slotted in the same way.
RB: What was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop like for you?
DS: I was there from ’78 to ’82. I was there for a while on a postgraduate fellowship. It was a relatively solid part of my life. I became a considerably better writer there by virtue of the fact that I was surrounded by older and better writers. I went there trying to write literature with a capitol L. Trying to write like Thomas Hardy. I was surrounded by people who wrote more relaxedly, more in their own voice. More in a contemporary way. I feel like just through that I learned how to write. I learned more the 1st month there than the next 3 1/2 years. I felt like, “Oh I see. You write out of your own experience. You write in your own voice and don’t try to write literature per se.” I don’t know why I needed to learn that but I did. And if part of your childhood was watching Get Smart, that’s okay, mention that. Don’t pretend you lived and grew up in France. I found how to find my own material by watching these other people write about their own quirky material. That was hugely revelatory, though it seems self-evident now. I also rebelled against the aesthetic at Iowa, which is now very traditional and then was also very traditional. At first I tried to write in the Iowa aesthetic in my first novel, Hero.
RB: Frank Conroy would take exception to the claims of an Iowa aesthetic.
DS: Well. I loved his first book, Stop-Time. But he is now, a relatively traditional writer. The books that he likes, the books that he champions, are traditional. By definition, the people who are accepted on the Prose side are people who Conroy finds congruent with his aesthetic. I respect him a lot, but when I visited there recently to give a workshop, I was struck by how well made and or but, how traditional the work is. It’s well-made mainstream work. That’s a reflection of the director. If the director were someone else, the work would reflect him or her. How could it be otherwise?
RB: Conroy does point out that the books published by Iowa graduates are vastly different from each other.
DS: That may be true. If I were to read 10 books published by people from Iowa in the last 5 years and they really were wildly different that would prove out. It could be the case. On my visit there the work seemed—I workshopped maybe a half a dozen pieces of writing and I was really struck by how un-experimental the work was. I’m 45 and these people are about 20-25 years younger than me, I felt like I was this young Turk telling them they didn’t have to be these old fogies. This circles back to what we were talking about before. They are trying to find their commercial niche now. There is a relatively small margin of freedom and they are trying to write something that could be published in Harper’s and The Atlantic next week. And boy they weren’t going to mess around doing Brautigan-like or Vonnegut-like experiments. What they were going to write was that limpid linear prose.
RB: 6 out of 25 people that graduated in 2001 from Iowa have books coming out now. That’s a fact that Frank Conroy pointed out with, I think, sincere amazement.
DS: That’s impressive and amazing. The people that come there are pretty good writers. I teach in the MFA program at the University of Washington, and we think of ourselves as having a pretty good program. We certainly aren’t having 6 people a year publishing books.
RB: Does your dust jacket bio mention that you went to Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
DS: Uh-uh. I’m proud that I went to Brown and to Iowa. They are good programs. I learned a lot a both places. I feel like as you get older it seems like a weird thing to keep on mentioning. Do you think I should?
DS: I like the Anne Carson bio, it just says, “Anne Carson lives in Canada.” That’s all she had.
RB: Well, it’s a tough call. It’s hard to understand how much one should participate in the marketing of one’s self. Being at Iowa is certainly a significant credential. Do you know which is the 2nd oldest writing program in the US?
DS: Stanford, maybe?
DS: Are you sure?
RB: That’s what I was told by Tom McGuane.
DS: Really. Montana has a very strong program. Richard Hugo was there.
RB: So, what’s next?
DS: I am working on a book, which I hope to finish by December, called Body Politic. It’s a series of meditations on sport and culture. Pieces about Ichiro and Phil Jackson, Howard Schultz but also some personal pieces.
RB: Howard Schultz?
DS: The Starbucks guy. He owns the Sonics. I published a piece in the New York Times Magazine about him. I’ve written several pieces for the Times magazine and they asked me to do another one. I felt that if I was going to accept another assignment from them I had to justify it by seeing if I was building a book. So I am writing various pieces to fill in the cracks. I’m writing pieces on my bad back, my daughter’s soccer team, on all kinds of things, trying to get at a kind of anatomy of sport and culture. I think it will be a fun book. Probably kind of a collection, but I am hoping it will feel as Enough About You does. I’m having fun with that book. I like working in these smaller units and hoping these units build into a nice block. I’m going to write a novel after that. I have an idea for a novel. Which contradicts everything I just said.
RB: You mention Seattle as a “center of world-class ambition.” What’s it like to live there?
DS: I quote someone saying that. I agree there is a certain element of truth to that. It’s a strange place. I really have come to appreciate it. For better or worse, it’s where I live, and so I have tried to make my peace with it. The worst of Seattle is that it is outside the mainstream, geographically it is remote from the rest of the country. More so than anywhere else. People aren’t part of a larger conversation and people are weirdly untutored about what the rest of the world or the rest of the culture might be like. At its best there is a kind of intensity there that is bred of isolation so that someone like Nirvana would be there or these building Microsoft. There is a kind of refusal to accept the conventional wisdom and just follow the traditional mode. I feel like a lot of writers, like say in NYC, are not writers who typically are doing wonderfully groundbreaking work. They are so aware of what you are supposed to be doing, of what is commercially viable. The thing I like the best about Seattle is there can be a certain insistence on doing it your own way and being desperate to be heard because you also far out of the mainstream. That you are saying, “I’m going to make this word processing system so criminally effective that everyone is going to have to use it.” Or, “I’m going to create this bookstore online that is so amazing efficient that everyone is going to be using it.”
The conversation continued for bit and then Shields went off to his reading in Cambridge. Readers can expect further installments of this talk with the future publications of Shields’ books.