Frederick Busch has published 21 books of fiction, beginning in 1971 with I Wanted A Year Without Fall and including The Mutual Friend (about Charles Dickens), Girls, The Night Inspector (his novel of Herman Melville), Don’t Tell Anyone, and his most recent novel, A Memory of War. He has also authored a number of books on writing: Letters to A Fiction Writer, A Dangerous Profession and When People Publish. Until recently, he taught undergraduates creative writing at Colgate University. Frederick Busch lives in upstate New York with his wife, Judy, and his aging Labradors. He is finishing up his next novel, North, working on a story cycle and dreaming of a house on the coast of Maine.
Robert Birnbaum: Mark Winegardner suggested to me that we take for granted prolific writers—he mentioned Joyce Carol Oates.
Frederick Busch: She always gets in trouble for writing a lot. Updike, too.
RB: This is your twenty-fifth book?
FB: It is.
RB: Do you have any feelings about being taken for granted?
FB: I’m sure that all writers are taken for granted. Writers were born to be taken for granted. I don’t know about that theory. I once heard…
FB: It’s turning now.
RB: Okay let’s try it again. This is the ongoing saga of Fred Busch…
FB: If in my novel A Memory of War you were to allow for the fact that I do not have Fellini’s genius, humor, or accomplishment, you could say it was my version of his magnificent 8 1/2. It’s a man in his middle years, a creative man, coming to grips with his past, his present. Dreaming his past. Making it up. Making up his present. Caught between his wife and a lover and all of that wonderful dumb stuff that certain men get up caught in. That is this book and the effort to control and make it readable and, in fact, fun at times and always interesting. As I was saying before, before we were so rudely interrupted by the tape going off. I’m just learning how to write.
RB: The issue of autobiography in a writer’s fiction seems to be belabored and yet that won’t stop me from probing… you mentioned in an interview that you had an elementary school teacher at P.S. 152 who you finally were able to please by writing a poem.
FB: Miss White. She wanted me to die. She made it very clear that she hoped I would die before school began tomorrow. She had a thin cartilaginous face and eyes that should have been beautiful—huge dreamy green blue eyes…
RB: What grade was this?
FB: Fourth grade.
RB: You were 9 years old and you have this seemingly perfect recollection.
FB: Yeah, I do remember her. And she would lift her bony brows and open her eyes, wide as could be, and stare at you as if she were Medusa or the basilisk and your heart would stop. It was Irish voodoo. She terrified me. And I horrified her with my ineptitude. And then one day I wrote a poem: I have a little dogwood tree / My father planted it for me /…that’s all I can remember. That may be all of it for all I know. She adored it. She had me rewrite it. She put it up on the bulletin board, and I found that she approved of me. I realized that if I could keep writing, I could get people to not want me to die.
FB: Thus, the man you see before you today.
RB: A perfect causal chain. In A Memory of War you have a instance when Alex, the protagonist, as a young student, plagiarizes a William Carlos Williams poem …
FB: I love that scene.
RB: Though the outcome is not the same, I wonder if that was triggered by your experience with Miss White?
FB: No, in fact that scene is triggered by my seventh grade recollection of Miss Casey…
FB: Another Irishwoman. And I married an Irish woman, so I was in training. Miss Casey liked me, and I loved (emphasizes) her. She was a tall skinny kid. And she was one of those fatal older women—as I was in training to try to become a male—I revered her and she was very good to me. And she led me to things to read and things to write and she praised me for writing. My character Alex has an experience with his version of Miss Casey when he plagiarizes the Williams poem because in the history of his mother in WW II as he imagines it, envisions it, she is wooed in part by the German prisoner of war who also plagiarizes a poem. So I just wanted to get back to that. Yes, absolute Buschian autobiography…love of Irish women… fatal to me.
RB: Why is there this unabated interest in associating the life of the writer with his fictions?
FB: I think we want to know why things happen and we want to know gossip. People think they are learning more about the interior mechanics of a writer’s work if he or his publisher says "based upon a true story." Or in a note on the book’s dust jacket, "Fredrick Busch was born in a foxhole in England in WW II." That sort of thing. You think you actually know more about the person when you have some context.
RB: That flies in the face of the basic premise we ought to accept when we pick up a piece of fiction, that it’s all fiction.
FB: I think we want our fiction to be true. Hence, the writer works towards a kind of verisimilitude, a seeming reality.
RB: There’s true and there’s true…one can be true but why do we want to hamper a story with dependence on facts?
FB: I guess we want certainties. I don’t know but in the old New Yorker, the pre-Tina Brown New Yorker, when there were two stories in each issue and a lot of the stories were great, you would often find a story that read like a recollection, a first-person remembrance. The old New Yorker tried to make its fiction read like fact. It was in service of the same desire for being informed by reality. I don’t know. I’m just guessing…
RB: There are some issues around writing fiction that it would seem would or should be resolved but never really are. Like the book/movie dichotomy, people still make the comparisons.
FB: I find in English reviewing, that it has become almost a matter of course to talk about films and books as if they were the same. And not the film of the book under review. So that a writer might find his novel compared to a movie about a different subject but with a similar protagonist.
RB: I can see that, I think that’s legitimate.
FB: Well, it’s just like saying, "This orange is very good although it’s not a Macintosh apple."
RB: Movies are another kind of text and narrative…
FB: They are another kind of narrative, and they share with good fiction the quality of being a dream.
RB: Part of what leads me to blur the distinction between film and literature is that I can’t think of many or any good movies that aren’t based on a good script.
FB: That’s right, even if it’s not necessarily dialogue.
RB: Always the backbone of the movie is a good written text…
FB: I agree. If there is a dumb script it may be delicious to look at because the cinema photographer was good, but it’s gonna be a dumb movie. Always.
RB: Have any of your books been made into movies?
FB: No. A number have been optioned.
RB: Is that good or bad, that they have been optioned but not made?
FB: I care in as much as I would like to have as much money as I am legally allowed to possess.
RB: What’s your legal limit?
FB: Enough to buy a house on the coast of Maine.
FB: Isn’t that pathetically small. Otherwise, I don’t care.
RB: Thomas Perry told me a story…
FB: He’s a good writer.
RB:…about an actor negotiating for an option who decided to buy a house in Santa Fe instead.
FB: Well. Buy me a house in Maine. I often think that some of my books could be good films and they may be.
RB: Seems not to be a side of the street you are working very hard.
FB: Well, you know, I just write the books and then we’ll see what happens. I had a novel in ’97 called Girls that a lot of people liked, and I never felt that I had dealt fully with the protagonist, and I am now writing a second book about him. I want to find out what happened to him. And that book was optioned for three years by Dreamworks and a French feminist director—the woman who made Artemesia—was very interested in making a film of Girls. I think that will be a movie one of these days. It’s pretty simple stuff, you can just point the camera at some anguished man. It should be easy.
RB: Is that your next book?
FB: Yeah, it’s called North, and I’m finishing it, and I will be done in March.
RB: Give me a sense of how your life works. You teach and you write…
FB: I am leaving teaching now. I’m on leave.
FB: Uh huh. Well, I don’t know. Undergraduate teaching, yeah.
RB: The occasional residency?
FB: That might be fun down the road. But right now I want to have only one full-time job, and so I put in my papers about a year ago and we worked it out that I would have a leave of absence which was owing to me this semester and I’ll fade out after that.
RB: How many years?
FB: I went to Colgate in 1966. That’s a long time.
RB: Do you want me to do the math?
FB: I can’t do it. I’m an English teacher. My wife gives me pencil-only privileges in the checkbook.
RB: Thirty-seven years.
FB: Yeah, thirty-seven. Yeah, same place.
RB: Wow, a paradigm of stability.
FB: I’m just boring.
RB: One of these backwoods crazies.
FB: I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to teach for a semester, and I loved it, and I came back the next year when the director Jack Lugett was on leave, and I was the acting director for a year and I loved that. And it was wonderful, and it’s great teaching. You have some of the best possible students in the world. And that was fun. And I always thought if I ever got a chance to work with graduate students at that level I might do that for a semester, but otherwise I just want to write. I want to read without a pencil in my hand. When I read a Dickens novel I just want to read it for me, not for students. I am a very conscientious teacher, and I like my students, and I want them to learn this stuff, so I was always taking notes for them. Now, it’s only for me.
RB: What do you think the relationship has been for you between teaching and writing? An obstacle or complementary?
FB: There are several truths about that. One is obvious: you are not spending all your energies on your work. You are using a different aspect of your brain—but your brain—to prepare for school. I spent hours and hours and hours a week preparing for my teaching. It’s a religion for me. I changed the books every semester so that I wouldn’t be going on automatic pilot. And that, too, is part of that ethic. On the other hand, there is a lot of cross-fertilization. I wrote a novel about Dickens because I was reading about Dickens, and I had a question about him that none of the books could really answer, so I answered it. The Night Inspector about Melville certainly had its origin in my thinking about Melville for my students. So that was good. I would get up pretty early and write in the morning and then go in and have office hours or classes certain afternoons and Colgate was very understanding about letting me have that schedule. Even when I was a kid and there didn’t seem to be any reason to let me have anything I wanted, they did. I have always been very grateful for that. It was a good run. And on the other hand it will be a pleasure not to observe or participate in faculty politics. Watching the powerless fight for the metaphors of power that they can’t exercise anyway because the power doesn’t move anything. Nothing gets done. It’s a kind of a scary silliness. I’ll be very happy to be away from that, although I made friends for life there.
RB: What do you envision for the future?
FB: I want to enjoy it instead of worrying about having to get it done before I go to school. I’m doing to do a book of stories when I finish this novel, North. And that’ll take me a while because it’s a pretty complicated book—sort of a story cycle.
RB: So it’s not a collection? It’s not yet written?
FB: I’ve written four or five of the stories. They are joined by a common thematics. I don’t want to say too much more about. They will each have certain concerns in common. I’d love to write a non-fiction book. I just don’t know anything. If I can find something I know, I’d like to write about.
RB: Some people write these books so that they can learn about their subject.
FB: True. I’d like to write a book on how to be five foot nine or how to be depressed, how to be bald. Something I know.
FB: They are very savvy. That may be a thing to do. I just don’t know yet. But I want to have time to really meditate on that stuff.
RB: Time to think?
FB: Yeah, yeah. The last thing you have when you are doing a lot of writing and teaching is thinking. And that’s dumb, if you are not doing some thinking.
RB: I’ve not observed from your writing any evidence of a lack of thought. What if it’s the case that you need this structure to accomplish what you have accomplished?
FB: Well, I will find out. And I will address it. I have choices now. For example, I have chosen to starve to death by retiring during the worst economic crisis for how many years.
RB: After thirty-seven years, don’t you get more than a watch?
FB A watch and the time to wind it. (Both laugh)
RB: Didn’t they give you a 401K?
FB: I gave me a 401K.
RB: Perhaps we can go back to some of things we had talked about before we experienced technical difficulties—such as the Joan Didion notion that we tell stories to live.
FB: I know she’s absolutely right. That the drive to tell our story is an essential part of being human. I know it. And people who can’t, get sick because of it. Bertha Poppenheim who was Anna O called, among other things, called her psychoanalysis "the talking cure." I think we need to tell our story. Somehow, somehow.
RB: In A Memory of War, the young lover and patient of Alex, Nella, describes her father as never speaking and when he, Alex Leziak, visits the man, he doesn’t appear to be reticent at all.
FB: Surprise! The daughter is telling the reality that she needs to see.
RB: I can’t recall the source, but there was a review that suggested that Nella’s father didn’t love her. I didn’t get that impression at all…
FB: I was not the person who suggested that. He seems to me a really concerned man whose wife is a suicide and who is worried about his daughter.
RB: A recluse who seems to be anti-social.
FB: He’s a poet. (laughs)
RB: A poet who makes a living writing corporate reports.
FB: That’s right. We all have our cross to bear.
RB: The talking cure…what’s the most extreme symptom of the inability to tell one’s story, catatonia?
FB: I suppose. People who live with depressives often complain about that. That they don’t address them, they don’t talk to them. There is that great little exchange in Eliot’s The Waste Land where the couple are sitting in their flat in London and the woman says, "What are you thinking?" "What, Think What, Think." And he says something about the closed car at noon, the bath at night and some grim description of their lives. Eliot was a depressive, that may have been about him and his wife…
RB: Sometimes there are longer breaks in correspondences that I have, and I find myself asking, "What happened?" Invariably the answer is "I didn’t have anything to say." I’m skeptical.
FB: Yeah, how can that be?
RB: It’s like those stories about children who start talking late, they didn’t have anything to say.
FB: No, no, no. I didn’t know it at the time. I know it now. When my father who was suffering post-traumatic combat stress after WWII—for many years I think, would sit there very somberly, very quietly in what the Victorians would call a brown study. Just staring off. Of course, my assumption was that he was angry. Or very, very sad. But I never knew the subject matter. I would ask him, and he would assure me that it was not me. And then I just didn’t care as long as it was cool for me. But as I think of it now, that man was locked in himself. He was looking for words.
RB: I just began Sherwin Nuland‘s Lost In America, and it’s about the weight of this man’s father’s despair on his own life.
FB: Burdened the young man? Sure it could happen. It didn’t to me. I just became an elfin jolly fellow and I don’t have any problems like that.
RB: Yes, that’s beautiful. Let’s wait for the New York Times Book Review. How has it happened that has become the benchmark of success?
FB: I’ve never heard anything to contradict that. I’ve always hoped that there would be something else. Yeah, if the Harvard Crimson likes you you’re okay.
RB: Charlie Rose?
FB: I don’t think he does a lot with what you and I would call "artful fiction." It tends to be either smart good sellers, literate non fiction. He doesn’t do a lot of fiction unless it’s news.
RB: Like Jonathan Franzen.
FB: Yeah, I don’t think he was right away. The Oprah thing and the phenomenal success of the book. But probably the Oprah thing put him over. More power to him. He wrote a good book and he was rewarded for it.
RB: This season’s big book could be by Richard Powers?
FB: I don’t know. I fear that Richard Powers is getting abused for being brilliant. And his work requires attention. He is so smart. I think he is a genius. I think he is one of the most important writers in America.
RB: Returning to the notion that we need stories to live, why do we not reward our best storytellers and are we also hell bent on abusing them?
FB: We want them to tell our story.
FB: I’m serious. You don’t want me writing A Memory of War by Fredrick Busch, you want me to tell the Birnbaum story. And in a sense good writers do speak for us. Good writers go deeper and deeper than we want them to, maybe. And they are telling their versions of who we are and maybe that’s not how we want it to be. Maybe we want it to be more like Dickens, more like the simple-minded aspects of Dickens. Not the deep, dark and profoundly terrifying blackness at the heart of Dickens but the jolly stuff—tragedies with happy endings.
RB: Not to ask for a list, but give me a sense of some of the writers and movie makers and musicians—I am forever trying to get a sense of what writers integrate into their lives. For a writer, a painter, a musician the creation goes on all the time and even more so then when they are actually at their work space…
FB: You are right. I take large doses of Gerry Mulligan. I imbibe heavily of Elgar and those modern English composers. The moody Russians, Shostakovich. I read people like Richard Powers. I read Richard Powers, because he is so smart. My God. He is at the front line. The man is opening his mouth, he’s swallowing the Twenty First century realities and metabolizing them for us. He’s making meaningful heartfelt emotional stories out of electricity and silicon. The man’s a genius.
RB: You’ve felt this way from his early writing?
FB: Yeah, yeah, Three Farmers On Their Way To A Dance.
RB: The book based on an August Sander photograph?
FB: Yes, It’s a marvelous book. Ward Just, Massachusetts’ own, is one of the great, unsung heroes of American writing.
RB: Would he be a writer taken for granted because he is prolific?
FB: I don’t know if he is taken for granted. I mean he is not a movie star. I think he is really respected by writers and smart readers. And he happens to be a friend of mine. And we correspond. Those writers among so many writers. The man we mentioned earlier, John D’Agata, who has not only done a wonderful anthology for the wonderful house of Graywolf, The Next American Essay but has written his own book of essays, called Halls of Fame which I really admire. I read a whole lot of poets. I read an awful lot of poetry.
RB: Do you write poetry?
FB: I wish I could. I was the worst poet in America. I reached that level in 1963. I never knew where to end the right-hand margin of my poems. So I kept pushing them out. And then finally the typewriter banged back to the left. I realized I was a prose writer. Those are some of the powers that sustain me—some of the sources of energy.
RB: How does new information get to you?
FB: I go after it.
RB: Gerry Mulligan isn’t new.
FB: He will be one of these days, I suppose—everything old is new again. I just listen. I look around. I’m sure I’m not on the cutting edge. I love jazz, I love symphonic music. One of the things I’m proud of having created at Colgate and sustained or twenty years with the help of a fabulous dean was a course called Living Writers. I would teach a book a week and then the author would come to class and be interviewed by my students. I would try to stay ahead of things by reading all the new writers. I couldn’t bring them all there and there were certain writers I couldn’t bring because of the size of their books. David Foster Wallace is one. I wanted to bring him but if I told the kids to buy that book [Infinite Jest is over a thousand pages] and have read by next Tuesday I’d get lynched. That kept me on top of what was new. And one of my pleasures for a while is going to be not reading the Times Book Review every week, not looking in Publisher’s Weekly, just relaxing about it. Let somebody discover some books for me.
RB: Do you go to conferences and other industrial gatherings?
FB: To do what, confer? No, I work alone. And I’m better at working alone.
RB: Writers, normally not the most gregarious and social of humans, seem to congregate with frequency especially in New York.
FB: Well. Career is part of that and the confluence of writing and teaching in the academy surely promotes conference attendance. As any department can prove to you, at a fairly good place any department will have a few really productive writers in whatever discipline and the rest of the people occasionally write an article and go to a conference and maybe even give a paper. They make the mistake of thinking that attending a conference is being a creative, productive scholar. And it’s not. It’s drinking and having sex and talking, talking, talking.
RB: That’s creative.
FB: Momentarily creative but you get tired afterwards.
RB: We managed to mention Graywolf which is a small counterbalance to our lament about the perilous state of American publishing…
FB: Graywolf has been in trouble and solicits help from its foundation. They publish heavy duty stuff you have to think to read. And they don’t look for best sellers. They look for smart books.
RB: That is the eternal condition of the publishers of smart books.
FB: Yeah, David Godine…
RB: Published you early on.
FB: Well, that was his mistake. But he got over it. He’s a wonderful publisher and he loves publishing. He loves the physical aspect as well as good language. David’s one of the angels of the business.
RB: There’s Copper Canyon in Seattle.
FB: A fantastic poetry press.
RB: Coffee House is in Minnesota also.
FB: Milkweed Editions in Minnesota.
RB: A hotbed of literary integrity.
FB: There are all these good things happening but it’s very, very hard to survive when you are making these good things happen as a publisher. There is a only one mainstream large publishing house in all of the US that is not owned by a society of German accountants like Bertelsmann or Putnam Penguin and that’s my publisher, WW Norton. They are owned by the employees and they are gutsy and they are independent and they are smart. I just love them as publishers. I wish there were more. Houghton Mifflin used to be independent. They have such good writers, Ward Just, Phillip Roth and Bob Stone. There’s an amazing writer.
RB: Robert Stone has a new novel, Bay of Souls, coming this Spring.
RB: Might he be the Melville of this generation of American writers?
FB: I doubt that enough book reviewers
know what Melville wrote to say that.
FB: But I’m not bitter. No. I haven’t heard that but I can see that analogy. He’s a deep diver. I’ve heard him referred to as a contemporary Conrad. He is just very, very damned good. His little book of short stories is a mind bender [Bear and His Daughter]. I taught that to undergraduates and some of them went into shock. The first story in that book "Miserer." There is nothing more powerful in our language. I want to be like Bob Stone when I grow up. I don’t know how to dive as deep as he does.
RB: You’re too happy.
FB: It’s all Judy Busch’s fault. (both laugh)
RB: Is it the natural order of things that what we deem as high quality to be eternally threatened? Or is the time we are in?
FB: I don’t know the answer. It’s bad —at a time of tremendous shock mixed with a kind of psychic shock we all received from 9/11, the arts will flourish psychologically and be threatened financially. Less money will be going to the arts. Similarly, at a time of war that is true. We may value those things less during those times. It’s tough times for the arts. Libraries are closing…
RB: Libraries are going to start selling books.
FB: Well, I’m just in shock. I just want them to survive. That’s where a whole lot of us got creative as thinkers…in libraries. Branch libraries can’t stay open. I gave a talk at the 42nd Street Library. It was the high point of my adult life, to stand up there in a hall and talk about libraries amongst other things. You think of James Baldwin going to the 135th Street branch—what if it’s closed when the next James Baldwin needs to go there?
RB: Well, you keep writing…
FB: That’s what I do. That’s how I justify myself. Seriously.
RB: Do you still ask yourself existential questions?
FB: When people say why do you write and I do tell that to writing students because I want them to understand how seriously one can take it. I justify my place on the earth by writing every day. If I haven’t written I feel awful. If I haven’t walked two and a half miles, I don’t feel so awful. I feel more rested.
RB: Perhaps the next time we talk, some of the Lost Questions will resurface—and I will have read all of your books and become a Busch scholar.
FB: Don’t bruise yourself. (both laugh)
RB: You have fiction published in Harper’s. Have they ever asked you for a non-fiction piece?
FB: I’d love to be asked to write a non-fiction piece or book. Maybe that will happen.
RB: Never been asked to write one of those biographical essays like the Penguin series?
FB: I don’t think [series editor] Jim Atlas thinks I’m smart enough.
RB: (laughs) Who would you like to write about besides Melville or Dickens?
FB: Hemingway. I know a lot about him and I care deeply about his work. It would have been very interesting to try to write something useful and simple and unpolitical
FB: In terms of the gender wars I don’t know if that’s possible, frankly.
RB: I recently read an obituary on Leslie Fiedler and it mentioned that he had visited Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho not long before Hemingway bit the barrel of a shotgun. Fiedler made a lot of that one contact with Hemingway.
FB: I don’t remember reading that, but I think Fiedler has been a really valuable critic—a really important critic of American literature. My reading of certain classical texts changed as much as after I read him as after DH Lawrence’s marvelous little book on classic American literature. Two really interesting analogous thinkers.
RB: Do you already have a publication date for North, the next novel?
FB: No, but Norton was good enough to give me a contract for that book in advance. The manuscript is due at the end of March and it might be nice to publish it the following Fall.
RB: Who is your editor at Norton?
FB: Jill Bialosky. Jill is a poet and a novelist. She’s a wonderful person, and she’s so good as an editor. I’m very lucky to be edited by her.
RB: You’ve probably been at every publishing house over your career?
FB: (Laughs). Yeah, I think so.
RB: Sounds to me like you have a home at Norton.
FB: I feel like I have a home. And they treat me that way. And that’s good, boys from Brooklyn need a home.
RB: Well, good.
*Shift Magazine once published twenty or so black squares the size of the photographs that were intended to be there. The photographer claimed that he had just come back from a trip and had dropped his film off and when he came back to pick up his photographs the store was no longer there…Shift ran his captions to the intended pictures. I was trying to think of some (clever) way to replace the twenty minutes of conversation that took place when the recorder stopped recording (no doubt, human error) While I had a sense of what I had asked Fred Busch, I just couldn’t ask him the same questions again. I have every intention of talking to him again and perhaps I will get back to those questions, in some way.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing