Janet Desaulniers hails from Kansas City, Missouri. As a writer, she’s received a plethora of literary fellowships, including biggies from the James A. Michener/Copernicus Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Illinois Arts Council, along with a Pushcart Prize and a Transatlantic Review award for fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous literary publications, including several stories in The New Yorker, TriQuarterly, The North American Review, and Ploughshares. Janet has also taught writing for over 25 years, most recently as an Associate Professor in the MFA in Writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was the inaugural Chair.
What You’ve Been Missing, her slender and potent debut collection of short stories, was granted the 2004 John Simmons Award for short fiction from University of Iowa.
What Amazon.com does not tell you is that Janet has a handsome dog named Beau. That’s where Identity Theory grinds its teeth.
The first time I was supposed to interview Janet Desaulniers, I was to meet her at a bakery somewhere in Chicago. For a reason too complicated to get into in this space, I failed to arrive. And, though she never said anything, I suspect it may have caused a hassle, because the next interview was set up for me to take a train deep into the suburbs. This time I arrived on schedule. Janet picked me up from the train, with her extra-friendly dog, Beau. Beau, Janet told me, is a dog of competition-grade pedigree. She was able to afford him, she said, because he has a “gay tail” which stands a little too high, giving the judges “a little too much information.”
Immediately prior to the interview, Janet took a phone call in which it became clear that her son’s girlfriend had found his porn and was upset. Janet laughed and promised to talk to the girl, to assure her it was not a problem, to calm her down.
Alex Shapiro: Now that all the good stuff has been said . . . This is just going to be a conversation.
Janet Desaulniers: Good.
A: I liked the way your reading went, it wasn’t like any readings I’ve been to. You started off “contextualizing” yourself.
J: I did that because my junior colleague had been up for tenure two weeks before and the smarty pants intellectuals at the Art Institute would say, “You need to contextualize yourself for us. And of course they meant within theory, but if you don’t subscribe, you know . . . Well, I thought it would be nice to contextualize myself as an autobiographical fiction writer, and that’s why I began with the Rhine Castle Lounge and the kinds of mysteries that grew up next to me, that caught my eye . . . Which were those cowboys who used to drive the ambulances and who lived in the back room of my folks’ business. The Rhine Castle Lounge across the street, and all the bars, because this was downtown so there were strippers and downtown type people.
A: Kansas City.
J: Yeah, Kansas City type people. We ate your little hamburger sliders before they were invented; back then they were made at a joint called Town Topic. It was a real urban sort of crazy, you know, various existence. So that’s what I thought I would do, talk about those things and how they presented my first glimpse of some of the mysteries the stories inquired into. You know, those aspects of life. So, I don’t know. It’s where I’m from.
A: So that contextualizes you?
J: Well that, and as I was just saying to my son: I used to be a woman. [To dog: Beau, get out of here.] I once felt what his girlfriend feels, deeply confused. I loved men very much. I admired them very much. But I was deeply confused by our differences. So a lot a lot of the early fiction was about “How is this ever going to work? How is this ever going to make any sense?” I was interested in how we experienced our differences. I think in a story like “The Good Fight” you can easily see that when you have a man talking about how touch comforts and a woman talking about how talking does.
A: The tension.
J: Yeah, she talks when she doesn’t know
what to do and he touches when he doesn’t know what to do.
And they each by the end of the story come to understand how marvelous
it is to be touched by another’s difference. To have someone
do the opposite of what you would do to ease yourself, how marvelous
It’s also in the guy’s logic in “Never Ever Always.” His wife catches him kissing a girl in their dining room and she says, “I needed to believe that you’d never do this.” And the guy says to his wife, “First of all, you nailed her, you know exactly who she is, she’s nothing, and I’m not going to pretend she’s more important than that. Second, never say never. You’re just gonna get yourself into lies and sentimentality if you do that.” I love that the guy was able to put it so succinctly. “You know, if you’re going to be a woman about this we’re going to have some problems.” He refuses to enter the situation her way. And I think that’s something women want men to do when they’re young; they want to pull men into their reality. We’re such good talkers.
A: Yes means no. If you say yes to me, you say no to everything else.
J: To everything. I am everything. And men seem to know from a much earlier age that the world is bigger than they are. They’re more open to experiencing the thing-ness of all things. They know. Porn is not my girlfriend. My girlfriend is not baseball, or my dog. It’s not. These things are different.
A: Or my dog is not baseball.
J: Right. Right.
A: My dog is definitely not my porn.
A: Although sometimes that can be hard to separate.
A: But I didn’t realize it was a guy/girl thing. Maybe it’s just I haven’t got there yet.
J: Well, that was me. I met mystery in men I loved. And so in stories I was definitely gonna lean to “What’s this about?” But people find mysteries wherever. And mysteries shift. The nice thing about having a book that holds twenty-five years of stories is that normally a collection might contain one thread of artistic inquiry into a particular brand of mystery . . . but because these stories span such a wide range of years in my artistic life, there are lots of other kinds of mysteries. Children and freedom and terrible surprises and that sort of thing too.
A: There is a logic behind what stories have been collected in this collection. There must have been stories left out because they somehow didn’t fit.
A: What is the unifying, what did you end up seeing as the unifying . . .
J: It’s in the title, What You’ve Been Missing. A lot of these characters have been missing something. Some even say it. The mother in “Who Knows More Than You” calls her sister and says, “My god, my babysitter, a churchgoing woman, has been beating my child. I haven’t just been missing some things. I’ve been missing a lot.” I think people walk into surprises because they’ve been missing something, and those surprises are wonderful dramatic opportunities to learn something you never knew. I left out stories that didn’t have that dynamic and also stories which added to these might have allowed a reader to trace the life of the writer. Some of the younger stories were I think accomplished, but I didn’t want readers to be distracted with, “Oh look, the writer is getting older.”
A: As the characters age…
J: Yeah, that you could see Janet Desaulniers behind the prose. I wasn’t interested in that at all. I think it’s something that happens more often when writers publish collections really young . . . You go, well, um, David Leavitt has great friends and a good mother and is gay. “Family Dancing” is a great collection, but there are two fabulous stories, and the other eight – as young writers do –work some of those same issues, just not as well.
A: I was half-comforted and half-horrified by your story of two accomplished stories and what happened after their release. From what I understand, the second story you wrote was published by The New Yorker, and then you were offered some kind of book deal?
J: Actually, that was such a cool time. I’m so glad I got to experience it. This was like 1979, I think. William Shawn, you know, he’s still the editor of The New Yorker. In fact, he asked that I change the word “butt” to “behind.” That’s how decorous The New Yorker was. No “fucks,” not even a “butt.” But what they used to do is read the slush pile. I don’t think they do anymore. I think they have hired help. But back then they found that story – we did write a few more scenes, and they edited it beautifully – and heard a young voice they hadn’t heard before, and they thought, let’s do this. That was something they could do back then. Not only that, but they introduced me around New York, even though I never left Iowa City. There must have been some sort of a newsletter. Because long before the story came out, the phone started ringing. And then every agent in New York wanted to see my book, and editors wanted to see my book, and Hollywood calls and says, “You’re sittin’ on the female Graduate of the ’80s,” and, “What are you gonna do about that?” And I’m in graduate school, and dumb, I mean naïve, ignorant as Dolly . . . Not Dolly, the other one . . . the one who said, “I wasn’t stupid, I was ignorant.”
A: Loretta Lynn?
J: Loretta Lynn. So I didn’t know anything. I had written another story by then and had started my fourth. Actually, I was on my fifth, I think, because I sent two to The New Yorker and they held one for awhile. I guess they meant to bring me along. But I was so dumb I had to ask somebody what stet meant. Just because the door to the big leagues was standing wide open didn’t mean I wasn’t still an apprentice. Luckily, I had the good counsel of the wife of Vance Bourjaily. Vance had left the workshop, I think, but Tina Bourjaily had me out to the farm and asked me how things were going, and, basically, I think her advice was, “If they offer you a Toyota, then go for it. If they don’t, they’re just going to distract you.” So, I just got right back to business and started trying to make work again. Slowly but surely.
A: What does that mean, “If they offer you a Toyota, then go for it?”
J: Well, I’m in my first year of graduate school and all these people are calling and I’m thinking, “How do I write a treatment?” and “Should I send unfinished stories I’d barely begun off to these agents and editors?” Those were the kinds of questions I had. And Tina’s sense was, “No, you want to be ready when you go through the door. You want to have a backlog.” I was honest with her. I didn’t even know how I wrote stories yet. I was still trying to figure out my process, and so I took Tina’s advice and I turned my back on all that and I did my apprenticeship. And then three or four years later I sent some new work to The New Yorker. Actually, I got an agent for the first time, and let her handle it. She was this great, old school agent, this marvelous woman, and that’s when I sold the book. On the basis of that story and a couple others. Robert Gottlieb had taken over as editor at The New Yorker by then and they really dug my work. I think they brought out three stories in a row. But I’m still only up to maybe the ninth story I’ve written in my life, and that’s after writing for five or six more years. It took a long time to turn these things out. The Gottlieb years were fabulous, though. They were so supportive. I had Alice Quinn, who was the poetry editor – she teaches at Columbia now – editing my fiction. She was superb. I just felt taken care of. Even if they didn’t take a story, they’d say, “You should try it here or there.” They were really my patrons. So, that’s when I sold the book. But then, of course, came Tina Brown.
A: It didn’t fit.
J: Well, nobody fit. I mean Rosanne was in there. Remember?
A: I wasn’t really following things like that at the time.
J: When Tina Brown took over The New Yorker,
it was like an infidel came in. She was going to yank it into something
glamorous. So the long, long, non-fiction articles were out. And
suddenly you went from two stories an issue to one story an issue.
That basically knocked out young writers, young voices, I think.
Now when she left and David Remnick took over, he did send a letter
to all those people who hadn’t appeared for years, and said,
“You’re welcome to come home and try again.” But
it’s not home. They’re still afflicted with synergy,
that thing Tina Brown invented, which is, “So-and-so is bringing
a book out, let’s try to have a story in the week before.”
The New Yorker didn’t used to be like that.
And at the same time, my stories started to become different. Much more direct and straightforward. At least to my mind direct and straightforward. There’s a story in the collection called “Who Knows More Than You” that I did send to them under Remnick, but they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand it. And it’s like, wow. Like suddenly my aunt Betty didn’t know what I was talking about anymore. I think I’d just grown away from the New Yorker sensibility.
A: But you were confident enough to say, “You don’t get it, but that doesn’t mean anything to me.”
J: Oh yeah. After Tina Brown. Look, I loved The New Yorker as a young woman. And I relied on it so heavily through Vietnam. I met so many incredible voices there. Even Salinger’s last story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” I think appeared when I was in 7th grade or something. It was something I held onto and was very much a part of my life. But it changed into something else. Though there’s still nobody like Hendrik Hertzberg to talk politics. I thought Birnbaum’s interview with him was fabulous, too. I still think they are incredibly important culturally, in terms of the smart people they have in there. But I miss the way they would bring writers out of nowhere. And how you could count on seeing someone again. And it didn’t mean they were having a book out, it meant they were just making work. I’m not sure they do that for writers anymore. I don’t even know if they do it for cartoonists anymore. I hope so.
A: Do you have a new magazine you read for fiction? Or do you have enough with the students?
J: There’s nothing I like better than a good story. But so much of what comes out of the trade presses is so boring to me. You know? That they’re still writing books the way people have always been writing books. Once I started at the Art Institute, I had less and less patience with some of the traditional nods. Somebody just has to write, “As he walked across the room,” and I have to close the book. It’s like, “As he walked across the room?” What a fake, lying sack of shit you are. No one “as he walks across a room” does anything but walks.
A: Realizes . . .
J: He doesn’t “realize.” He walks across the room. And if someone is doing two things at the same time, just tell me. “As he walked across the room,” all that transitional bullshit, it’s just such a fake. I don’t have any transitions in my life, and I don’t know anybody who does. There aren’t bridges between moments. There’s not a coherent line people can follow to the truth. That’s my artistic sensibility and my dramatic sensibility. Oblique things happen all the time, and we have to enter that mystery, accept the not-knowing. I admire writers who try to record that. In David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, for instance, for pages and pages he lists ways writers and artists died. Well, first he writes, ‘The writer is sick unto death of writing.’ And then you find out that the writer has lung cancer. So it’s clear the writer is inquiring into life and death – the death of art, the death of life – in all these fragmentary pieces of text. What amazed me was that he found in the last pages the consolation that a novel brings. The writer found the words, the language, in this context, to console himself and me. I thought it was brilliant. A brilliant book.
A: What was it about going to the Art Institute that brought about this change in sensibility?
J: I think because the MFA program as we set it up was supposed to contain the poles without polarization. Most writing programs, you’ve got a traditional writing program or you’ve got, you know, the poets at SUNY Buffalo, or the poets at Denver. You can put a name to it. You can say, “That’s where the nutballs are, working at Brown,” or “They’re experimental at Brown.” At the School, not only did we cover all the genres, we tried to represent the continuum of artistic activity from writers of the stature and reputation of Rosellen Brown, Carol Anshaw, in the tradition, to people working outside genre, using text in installation art, narrative in performance and/or other kinds of artistic activity. There are people on our faculty who believe the novel is dead. And there are people who teach novel writing. I find that kind of thrilling. And we like each other. We respect each other. And we tell students the truth about who we are and how they might use us. I can say to my students, “Look, I believe in meaning. Let’s get that straight. So, if you’re going to do word tricks, and you’re going to make letters circle the page or disappear or dance jigs, I can respond to it only as a naïf. Because I’m always looking to make meaning. So it might be interesting to have me in your process, because I’ll say, ‘Well, you have all these g’s over here, and they seem not to want to hang with these f’s over here. Wonder what that’s about?’” I’m regularly invited into the processes of people who are not after what I’m after. I find that terribly interesting. It’s given me a certain courage to discover the dramatic truth I want to represent in my work. And it’s helped me learn to play around more. In early drafts I don’t worry so much anymore about craft. I’ve learned to invite my intuitive sensibility and my viscera much more into the process of making, and it’s totally changed the way I write, completely. I used to get a glimmer. There’d be something. I’d say, “This is something.” And I would immediately [snaps].
A: Like what? What would it be?
J: Like my son, actually when he was a kid, had made a drawing of a school-bus. And had written under it, mainly backwards, “After Rosa Parks,” and inside the bus were these black and white circles next to each other. It was the exact image from the library scene in “After Rosa Parks.” That thing was on our refrigerator forever. He went to Martin Luther King, Jr. Experimental Laboratory School, put that on a t-shirt, a school with a strong ethical center, the first voluntarily integrated school in Evanston. So he did a lot of singing of “We Shall Overcome” and stuff, learned about Malcolm X and a lot of other things that meant so much to me as a little girl, just peeping out into the world. I began to know I wanted to write something about the legacy of civil rights for white people. You know? They also made us more free. All those black folks in their Sunday best, sitting at those diners, getting ketchup poured over their heads and getting fire hosed and attacked by dogs, they made everybody more free, not just black folks. So I knew that, but I didn’t know anything else. Okay, I knew there was going to be a kid, because I wanted to honor the fact that people relearn stuff that’s happened to them from their kids. But that’s all I had. And every time I got anything more – a snatch of dialogue, a moment – I’d push it around, try to extend it into scene and make it work for me. It was so utilitarian. Not to mention agonizing. I kept killing each spark of promise because I kept pushing each one past what I knew for sure. And that’s how you end up telling the kind of lies fictions cannot tell. Anyway, enduring the pain of failing and failing that story, which I very much wanted to tell, opened me up to seeing early composition in new ways. Now I start with collecting things. I don’t try to know anything and lead anything.
A: I’m fascinated by your process.
J: I just collect. Whatever matters about anything, I write that down. During the time I was learning to do it, I had this incredibly talented student who was going to kill himself because he’d been at the School for three years and he’d never written one thing he recognized as good enough. I knew he was talented, because I have this gift. I can smell it. And I knew he had stuff to say. So both he and I decided, Let’s do this thing where we write 50,000 words in one month. Let’s just do it. Now for the first few days, you write a bunch of crap. But once you start collecting things you come to respect discrete units of significance for what they are. You don’t say, "Oh, I own this really good interlude, now how can I hook it up with something else?" Because you’re not making. You’re collecting. So it’s all about listening to the sound of matter. Of significance. It might be an observation; it might be a piece of dialogue. If you have to write 1,666 words a day, everything’s game. At breakfast my husband would say, “You know, I think this sweater’s going to change my life.” And after I finished laughing, I thought, Right, I’m taking that.
A: Little did he know.
J: The important thing is I didn’t try to do anything to it. I just wrote it down. “This sweater’s going to change my life.” Also during this time I woke up one morning and turned on the television and I see Diane Sawyer making a transition from the murder of Daniel Pearl to that little ice-debbie who didn’t make the triple-triple dealie in the Olympics. I thought, “Well, you’re the devil.” And I wrote that down.
A: Did she just switch off her emotions?
J: She just was Diane Sawyer. She looked exactly like Diane Sawyer. She made a transition – and I wish I could remember it – from Daniel Pearl to this little ice-deb, and I was horrified. I understood why I’d begun to hate transitions.
A: Did her head turn?
J: She did one of those TV journalist kinds of
things, like, “And turning to news from the whatever,”
and she turned, as if we were going to go gladly with her. As if
we were on a tour of the world and, okay, here was this sweet-faced
man being beheaded and now we are moving on to the ice-coliseum,
right? It seemed to me very very important. A very very important
thing about dramatic event. You cannot get from Daniel Pearl to
the ice coliseum. They might be right next to each other. They might
both be bristling madly with significance. But there is no freakin’
bridge. There is no easy way. That’s what’s hard about
being alive, that Daniel Pearl and the ice-debbie’s are both
in your life at the same time.
So anyway, this student and I, writing everything down, stopped writing any moment or conversation whenever we didn’t know what to write next. We’d stop writing that and look around for something else that mattered. At a certain point you start to realize, “This stuff is great.” And you’re paying such close attention to the world. And you can give all of it, any of it, to your characters. I call it fodder. There’s no plot to organize any of it, and so you see more clearly what you have. There could be somebody talking about politics. There could be somebody talking about dentists. There could be somebody talking about depression, addiction. What happens when you collect that many words is you begin to see themes. The dramatic themes of existence. Like I’m middle-aged, so I saw pets – the kid’s grown – plus stories of adult children, the domestic life, doctors, depression, alcohol, medication, handymen, bad handymen, and work, the grotesquery of work, or more precisely the grotesquery of the people in charge. Work’s okay. And then I went looking for the book. I had this riotous bunch of images and moments and snips of conversation and I just had to find the people who owned them and the circumstances that owned them. And that was very easy for me. And it was for this student, too. We entered into all that material as craftspeople trying to recognize what it wanted to be. Before, I would get something and then try to put something on top of it. I always tried to know what was next. And if I didn’t know I might make something up just to get moving. And I’d write a lot of bad paragraphs. Because if you’re making things up to get moving, you end up writing things like, “As he walked across the room, he realized. . .” I don’t have to write like that anymore. I’m too old to write like that. So it changed my process. Certain times I’m just collecting. Other times, when I know something, I’m trying to craft.
A: It sounds very freeing.
J: It’s fabulous. The student started in November, first collecting 75,000 words and by the end of summer he had found and finished the book. He thought, “Oh, okay. Now I’ll go traipse across the Yucatan or something for a couple of years and then I’ll do this again.” So it’s a nice way of life for an American writer, because nobody gives us any time to write. It could relieve us of that terrible tension and dread we live because writing is never vocation, always avocation. On Fridays, when other people are looking forward to their lives, we’re always thinking, “Okay, tomorrow is Saturday and I have to write.”
A: I just went to New York with my girlfriend, because she was there for this cooking contest.
J: How many great details were in that?
A: Amazing, and then I was in the hotel room trying to write my little five-hundred words a day. And I thought, it’s 4am and I’m in New York. Get out there! Because there’s that balance between experience and recording experience. Between doing things and talking about it. And it seems like that would be that doing writing this way.
J: I recommend that you do this thing. You learn so much about yourself if for a month you make 1,666 words per day. I also went back to old failed work. Because I tried to push stories around for years, I now have whole lateral files full of failed stories. Draft upon draft. And I know they’re bad. But there are moments in them that kill. So I cut and paste only those words. I also went through letters and emails. Anytime I thought, “That’s a good story. You’re giving that away,” I cut and pasted. Because writers give so much away. Since most of the people I love live far away, I’m constantly corresponding. So I go through it, looking and listening. Something as little as, “We’re the Lewis and Clark of bad experiences.” I’ll write that down. Because that’s great. Now I have a character who says that about almost every aspect of life. “Oh, you’re the Lewis and Clark of bad haircuts.” She can’t stop saying “Lewis and Clark.” I don’t know why certain things have that shimmer, but they do. And because of my work at the Art Institute, I’ve learned about trusting the intuitive and the visceral and the playfulness of just collecting. I know I can trust them and I know they will lead me to my integrity. I know that, in my world, someone saying “You’re the Lewis and Clark of bad experiences” is going to make sense. In the book that I’m writing, it’s gonna tell its own story.
A: Like found art?
J: Sort of, except it’s mine. Well, it’s my ear and it’s my eye. Sometimes it’s other people’s dialogue or other people’s bodies that I’m observing.
A: They might smell that way, but you’re the one who smelled it.
J: I’m the one who smelled it.
A: And you’re the one who compared it to a pear. Or some kind of pear.
J: Yeah. And I’m the one who wrote it down. I collect all this stuff for my characters because I want them to be rich in possibility. And it’s easier for me to make a character rich in possibility if I have 120,000 words of possibility when I’m putting things together. I might get in a mess with some scene, and instead of making things up I can pull over this binder and go through it and say, “What if she said this now?” or “What if he did this now?” It’s almost collage, except collage implies taking bits from disparate places. And all of this is from my imagination and experience, and guided by my sensibility. It’s all on the page because it hit my sensibility as significant.
A: And the dinger goes off louder now?
J: This is what my husband taught me. My husband is a performance artist and an artist and a writer, and when we first met – remember I’m a woman so I’m a talker – he was always saying, “You should write that down.” And I’d think, “Why should I write that down? That’s two sentences. Or that’s a paragraph. What would I do with that?” I thought a writer needed to know what to do with something. Thankfully he kept saying it, “You should write that down.” And now I am that person in so many people’s lives.
A: I feel like you’ve said a lot about what an MFA is, and I’ve heard some recent criticism. People talk about stories, and they say, “That reads like MFA-fiction.” It makes me angry, because you should just say what you mean. If you don’t like the story because it’s too heavily plotted or it has no plot or you can’t read anymore stories about grandma’s dying, say that. But to slur MFA-fiction is to slur a great idea that no-one would complain about in any other world, like ballet.
J: You can be a writer without going to get your MFA. MFA’s present certain challenges, but they’re one way we keep independent witness alive in this country, and that’s worthy work. The great thing about so many programs is that they pay folks who might not otherwise be able to afford it to go to school and take time to write. The MFA is like a self-designated grant period. Poor folks get paid to write and literary art remains democratic, with this wonderful influx from all over the country. Actually, I’ve been teaching so long I sometimes recognize parts of the country in the kids who want to get in – well, more and more they’re not kids, they’re adults – and I think, “Oh my god, I hear some Louisville in this work.” Or, “There’s some southern weirdness.” Or, “This is that northern California thing.” We still have great regional mysteries and they change as the country changes.
A: That must be great.
J: It’s so great. Like lately we’ve
had some students from L.A., and reading their work I get the feeling
that in L.A. you have to fight to be an average joe. In fact, smart
people in LA pretend not to be smart, because LA’s such a
venal, horrible place that if you’re smart, everyone will
be like, “Where’s your screenplay?” Anyway, you
get a sense of the national sensibility of 25-35 year-olds, and
you get to see all the texture.
Sadly, sometimes good MFA programs cost. Our program costs too much money, but if you can’t deal with the cost you can still find a program that will support you while you work and grant you access to a precious window of time to apprentice and learn and live with other people who are doing the same thing. It’s just brilliant. A brilliant time. And then writers carry that back out into the world, which is just great. And they meet up with others. And the conspiracy of smart people continues.
A: Should all writers try teaching?
J: I did it wrong. I was working class. When I got out of Iowa, I had been accepted into Provincetown and I had a job offer to be an assistant professor. I asked the university folks if I could go to Provincetown first and then start the teaching job, but the person they’d hired the year before had asked the same thing and they said sure and she went to Provincetown but never came back for the job. She screwed that up for me. They said I had to make a choice. I took the job. So I’m twenty-six years old and teaching graduate students, some older than I am. To be that young and know that little. And I took it seriously. I wanted to be of service to people. I worked so hard for the first probably ten years. It takes enormous effort to learn how to get inside a story and see it better than the writer has seen it. Richard Hugo said you should be 40 before you teach. I don’t think that’s a bad way of thinking about things. One of the best hires I made at the School when I was Chair was a man named Beau O’Reilly. He’s been a playwright, actor, songwriter, composer since he was a baby. I don’t know how old Beau is, but I’ll wager he was over forty when I hired him, and he brought to our students this marvelously full-fledged life as an artist in the world. Here was a guy who’d made his own culture with his own theater group, a guy who’d done this, that and the other thing to survive but who’d seamlessly integrated his life and his work. The telling thing is he came to me right before we finalized the deal and said, “You know Janet, I don’t have any of those A’s. No BA, no MA, no MFA, I don’t have any of that.” And I thought, “Thank god we’re at an art school, man, because you don’t have to have any of that.” So that’s one thing wrong with a lot of MFA programs. Their universities wouldn’t let them hire a man like Beau, and so they could never be changed the way we have. Because Beau brought his community into the School and the School into his community, and now so many of our students – poets, fiction writers, whatever – end up engaging in fringe theater in Chicago. They learn to act and write and direct and start their own theater groups, and it’s fabulous. He’s an example of who should teach, and he’s a hell of a lot more useful than I was, a twenty-six year old fresh out of Iowa.
A: Speaking of work, you were describing your new book in progress as something that has to do with people working and bosses and things like that.
A: Is it taboo for you to talk about it?
J: Oh no, I like talking about it. I had all this collected material, right, and then because a friend was introducing her I had a free ticket to hear Shirley Hazzard speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival and then Shirley Hazzard happened to say, “We need a Flaubert of the workplace.” And I thought: I’m not busy. Why not me? I could do that. Also, around that time the School was having financial trouble, and I took exception to some of the administration’s cost-cutting measures. Suddenly, I’m in all-school meetings and I’m talking, which you really don’t want to find yourself doing. But I am. And talking so much that people I’ve never met are calling me by my first name. Coming up the way I did in a family business, I saw my folks bail employees out of jail and check them into detox and drive them to work during ice storms and hold their hands while they died of cancer. I understood work as an extension of family. So it’s especially difficult for me to see people treated badly in the workplace. Denied this and that, and it’s so harsh. And cold. I wanted to write about that. I’ve seen people destroyed in the workplace. And the truth is the workplace does not respect intelligence, does not respect hard work, does not respect all those things it’s supposed to respect. Too often it’s a terrible place, fraught with hidey-holes of grotesquery, and we all get caught up in them from time to time. We’re just tooling along and the bottom falls out. Or we make mistakes all the time and nobody cares, then suddenly we make one and oh-my-god. It’s a place roiling with drama and bad behavior. And angst. Work makes people want to die. People weep. And so that day I decided I would give everything I’ve collected, all this matter, to a group of people trapped in an indecent workplace. Then I began to rough out the characters, and there we go.
A: What a perfect menagerie. An excuse to have different lives in one room. It’s work.
J: And I don’t think any of this is coincidental. No one should think the artistic process is coincidental. What delivered this new book was the patience I showed in collecting its matter. I didn’t force it. And much of the fodder was domestic. I could easily have forced it into a kind of domestic tale. But instead I’ve found something new. Because I can already see that the context of the indecent workplace has reframed the domestic life as a kind of consolation. I mean, you come home from a hellish work situation to a mad Polish handyman banging on the door and shouting, “Your husband says you’re going to pay me! Your husband doesn’t pay me!” That’s where you feel humanity. And you need to get down on your freakin’ knees and thank your lucky stars that you’ve got a Polish handyman at home to remind you that you’re alive, and that the world is various and life is not just this horrific march of, “Now we’re going to take these benefits away from you,” and, “Oh, by the way, you have to share your office with sixteen people.” And even worse than that, of course. So I don’t think this new process is coincidental. I think it’s a matter of patience. And a new way for a person who’s alive to write. Because I do enjoy my life. That’s another reason my book took twenty-five years. For a good number of those years, I was a mother. I didn’t want to miss that. There was never any question of what was more important. It was a marvel, that kid growing up. I still find him utterly compelling. And I learn so much. If you want to be present for motherhood, it’s hard to put in four hours a day writing. Especially when you have to have another job. I mean, even Tim O’Brien is working, I see. If Tim O’Brien has to work, then we all need to understand we’re going to have to work a job.
A: What’s he doing?
J: He’s teaching now, at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos. It’s a new program, probably seven or eight years old. And I think it’s one of the few that allow you to work in more than one genre, which is kind of cool.
A: A lot of the writers who I know teach. But the writers who I’m familiar with from growing up worked in custom houses, or in a church, and great poets worked in insurance offices.
J: Alice Munro talked about how marvelous it was to be a housewife. And, I mean, I don’t clean, but it would be great just to be hanging around the house. Because, like Alice Munro, the domestic scene is where I found what matters. It’s just right there.
A: So as far as workplaces go, it seems that some of these horrors that you witness in a workplace, or in an office, could be great for writing.
A: Eating well is the best revenge.
J: Um hmm. You work it out by writing about it. And it’s worth working out.
A: What’s your dog’s name?
A: Do you have a favorite piece of advice?
J: In this class I’m teaching called “The Situation of the Writer,” I’m trying to help people get ready for the life of a writer. The opening session was on advice from writers. 64-pages of advice. One-liners. (laughs) The School has this new tool now that allows teachers to put documents online and then students can access them and print them out. And my students are like, “It’s sixty-four pages, Janet!” And I’m like, “Well that’s the point: You asked for advice? Careful, you might get it.” But the thing that informs my life right now and that I find myself saying to my students all the time is, “It all goes in there. Everything goes in.” They say it should be on my tombstone. Don’t be picky. Collect everything. Later you make your decisions about what you’re going to do with it. But right now, it all goes in there. Your work in progress needs everything.
A: How do you know Birnbaum?
J: I just read him online. I think I’ve outgrown or outlived my shame button, so I have no problem if I admire something with writing and saying, “I think what you’re doing is great, and here’s who I am.” I think that’s another thing about bringing out a piece of work when I’m an old woman is that I’m not that modest. Is that the right word? I’m interested in what people are doing. Why shouldn’t they be interested in what I’m doing? So I sent out cards and emails. One guy who writes about aviation reviewed my book on his website, because I sent it to him. I said, “I think your website’s interesting and you have a great voice.” And so he read my book and penned his first review. Now he’s going to review books as a regular feature. Somebody like Birnbaum, he’s a treasure. I mean, he’s the one the world needs to know about. Okay, the world needs to know about you and me, too. But Birnbaum’s something else, I think.
A: He really is.
J: He’s so smart it’s scary. How could he know all that? Or have read all that? Does he have a job?
A: He reads constantly and talks to authors.
J: Does he support himself?
A: Umh, I don’t know.
J: I think it’s great. I read the best magazines and newspapers in the country, and this guy has got it going on. He needs to displace somebody who’s holding a job. That person has to die and make way. Because more people need to read Birnbaum. There are so many literary people who don’t know anything about the web. Nothing. And this guy does it like every week.
A: Twice a week, sometimes.
J: Oh my god. Plus, he’s everywhere. He’s also reading everybody else’s websites, and commenting, and having dialogue. If that’s his job it’s a great one, although I couldn’t read as much as he does. Because he talks to really smart people and has to know everything they know in order to talk about it.
A: And he busts them on their shit, too.
J: He does bust them.
A: It’s funny when they start saying something political that they don’t know the whole of . . .
J: He’s been there and around. And back on Thursday.
At this point we talked a bunch about me, which isn’t worth repeating here. And then Janet said more about her experience with Birnbaum and her new book.
J: The cool thing about coming out with a small press is that I wanted very much to be a part of getting people to look at the book. For me I don’t think of it as promotion. I think of it as, I want people to read this book. So, I’m not promoting anything. I’m just saying, “I wrote this good book, don’t you want to read it?” And so I sent out loads and loads of notices to anybody I admired. And when somebody like Birnbaum not only responds but engages a dialogue, that’s great. And he actually read the book, although I think he may have had to stop at the dead boy part. He did say, “You killed a child. How do writers do that?”
A: He doesn’t like that.
J: And the next thing I know, he’s saying, “Hook up with this guy.”
J: That’s the kind of guy I want running literary efforts. He’s a good egg.
A: And he’s got a good dog.
J: And a great looking kid, too. Gorgeous.