Writer, teacher, jazz pianist, father of three sons, Frank Conroy has been the director of the highly regarded University of Iowa Writers' Workshop since 1987. He is the author of Stop-Time (1967), a memoir, Midair (1985), a short-story collection, and Body & Soul (1993), a novel. Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now is Frank Conroy's latest book. In it are collected his ruminations on various subjects that have been published in magazines such as GQ, Esquire, Harper's Magazine and others. Additionally, Conroy has interspersed some new observations and insights throughout. Frank Conroy and his family split their time between Iowa City and Nantucket.
Robert Birnbaum: Let's talk about the title of your book. Was it an option to choose whether it was "Dogs bark and the caravan rolls on" or "Dogs bark but the caravan rolls on"?
Frank Conroy: In English I have never seen 'and.' I have seen 'but.' It's a Persian proverb but it's hard to find its provenance. Proust uses it in Remembrance of Things Past. The first time I saw it was in some book where it was used the way I use it here: when Wynton [Marsalis] complained to me about all the stuff they [the critics] were writing [about him]. So it popped into my head.
RB: That conversation was included in the piece you published in 1995. How long have you been carrying around this proverb as a potential book title?
FC: Oh, a long time. Ten years anyway, at least. It just stuck in my mind because there is a truth to it, you know.
RB: You do point out the elasticity of proverbs.
FC: Yes, they stretch and they last. That's why they are proverbs. They contain some nugget of stuff that keeps being useful and keeps being discovered. And I like its quiet stoicism. (laughs)
RB: There is a wide range of topics in this book.
FC: Yes, I'll say. That was really the gamble—in a certain sense—of the book. There was a lot more than this. There were many, many articles and things over the years. The question was selecting them and what would be the principle. It really emerged gradually. First, I took the things that I liked the best. And then laying them out, there was a lot of personal stuff. So there is this covert, quiet, extremely small autobiographical side to it. There is also the observation side to it. I guess (long pause) it was really when I got to the Fitzgerald piece, and I thought, "Jesus Christ, that's it. That's the piece to end this with." In a funny way—even though there is a tremendous amount of music in it and this that and the other thing—that special feeling I have always had about Fitzgerald, here finally was a place for it. In a way, it made for a modest ending to a modest book.
RB: Where had that piece appeared before?
FC: GQ for Fitzgerald's 100th anniversary. They commissioned it. I worked harder on that piece than any other in the book. I reread all of him, And the biographies. I got back into that time zone. Which was fun. He always had a special significance to me.
RB: Do you end the book with Fitzgerald's story because it is a cautionary tale?
FC: Yes, sure, a little bit. And also because, yes the dogs may bark but what's in the caravan is hidden from view. As Saul Bellow says—we'll know in a hundred years. Every book of Fitzgerald's was out of print when he died. And he thought it was all over and that Hemingway had won. Not that they were in [direct competition]. But look who is on top now.
RB: You pointed out that The Great Gatsby sells 300,000 copies a year. Is there any Hemingway book that rivals it?
FC: I don't think so. I didn't look up Hemingway. It would amaze me. Hemingway sells and sells well, but I don't think anything like Gatsby. Every writer that I know thinks that Gatsby is a more important book than anything Hemingway ever wrote. Gatsby has lasted—in a way—there's a kind of magic in that book.
RB: You also express, in your book, disdain for Hemingway as a person.
FC: Well, I thought his behavior, particularly in terms of Fitzgerald, was absolutely unforgivable. Fitzgerald went out of his way to help him, introduced him to Sylvia Beach, his publisher, introduced him to everybody in Paris. Gave him every possible break. Talked him up. It was the beginning of Hemingway's career. At the end it's not like Hemingway is [just] talking bad about him—he wants to pulverize him, grind him into the dirt.
RB: Did Hemingway really suggest that had Fitzgerald seen action in WWI he would have deserted and been shot for cowardice?
FC: Yes, he did say that somewhere. I have heard the theory that Fitzgerald was simply so beautiful that there was a part of Hemingway that was in danger of falling in love with the guy. So he had to just tear him to ribbons in his mind. And spit on him.
RB: Some theory…
FC: It's not so crazy either. Hemingway was—for all the macho shit—he had some strange stuff going on.
RB: Did you feel any additional pressure because you have published books intermittently over the years?
FC: No. I have never thought of writing as a career. I really never have. Not even from the beginning. And not anywhere along. It just happens at certain times. Actually my wife said—because of all these moldering copies of things from years ago, just turning to dust right in front of her eyes. She said, "Why don't you put these in a book? Because they are just going to disappear." I thought, "No, I don't want to do that. I have to go back and look at all those things and it'll just depress me." But I did, finally.
RB: Did it depress you?
FC: No. Some of it depressed me mildly. Reading 25 pages I that wrote about Steve McQueen, which is not in this book. Some of the stuff I did makes me realize how young I was, how naïve and how little I knew. But for the most part it was good. It made me feel good. Some of the pieces I thought, "Jesus, that's a good piece." (laughs heartily) Because if you spend a month on a piece, like the piece about my teacher. And then it's done and finished and the magazine comes out and six months later it's gone and you forget it. But that was a good piece. So I got enough of a charge from reading the better pieces so that it didn't depress me and it wasn't a chore. And certainly I wasn't thinking I have to have a book. I thought it was interesting to write stuff now about stuff that I had written a long time ago and not get too deep in it or not make too big a deal out of it. It sort of fell together. Of course, it's kind of strange. There's a lot of different stuff in it. In the end I'm proud of it. I think it's well written and well thought.
RB: Your piece on the Iowa Writers' Workshop could probably save some aspiring writers a lot of time and money.
FC: It could. But it's hard to do it alone. But yes that's the philosophy that I developed as a teacher and I believe it works. Do you know that here we are sitting in Boston and it's April 2002. The prose class that graduated in 2001 contained 25 people. Six have books coming out now, this year. Six, a quarter of the whole class, in the first year after graduation.
RB: (both laugh) Have you calculated how many students of the Workshop have been published throughout its history?
FC: Well, the workshop is 65 years old. Nobody kept any records. We have rough indications but nothing really complete. But I am almost positive this has never happened before in the history of the workshop, a quarter of the whole class published in the year following graduation. Unbelievable! I couldn't believe it myself. They can't believe it. They're the ones that told me, of course. Two or three of them have said, "Do you realize six of us…"
RB: What does that indicate about the American publishing scene?
FC: Well, it's interesting. It's my belief that good book will still get published. Unlike a good movie screenplay. They have a million of them and they don't care. But a good book will still get published. Publishing has been influenced a lot by popular culture and the retailing of books has changed. Popular culture is making a great deal of noise and actually it's a little bit better than it used to be. There are plenty of genre writers today that make Mickey Spillane look like the lame ass that he is. There are some good writers. Michael Connelly. I just read that book [City of Bones]. It's a wonderful thriller. The same thing happened to me that happened to the reviewer. Unfortunately, I opened it up in the morning and I finished at dinnertime. I read the whole book in a day, one sitting. I was completely enthralled. Where was I? Oh yes, popular culture has risen but it's taking up a great deal more space. High culture is still there; it's just much quieter. The people in publishing are still looking for good books. If they can get a good book they will still break their asses to get it in print.
RB: There is the story of a young woman writer who based on one published story in the New Yorker was offered a very large two-book contract. And she turned it down.
FC: (laughs) It might have scared her.
RB: A lot of money seems to be being tossed around on not much of a track record.
FC: It's not wise or necessarily good for the writer. In fact as I say more…
RB: …have been destroyed by success than by failure.
FC: Yes. I believe that. My point is, although everybody says it's all going to hell in a hand basket and American literary culture is all over, really, that's not true. It just looks that way from the outside because popular culture is making so much noise and filling up so much space. But high culture is still there. A good book will still get printed.
RB: Right. The book is not going to disappear.
FC: It all depends how you look at it. My colleague Marylynne Robinson was being interviewed and someone said to her, "Don't you think that the image is taking over, the visual. That literature is doomed because it's all pictures, television, movies, that's the popular thing." She said, "I don't know. I think the visual has lost quite a lot of ground." He said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Well think about the impact, in the 14th century, on the mind of an illiterate peasant who walks by the cathedral at Notre Dame and sees the gargoyles?" (laughs) So it all depends how you look at it. My god, the students that I am getting. These six getting published right away is an outside indicator but for a subjective indicator I read about 289 manuscripts to pick my class of 25. When I was down to the last 50 it was really, really tough. They were sensational.
RB: That reminds me. Do you or can you still read one or two books a day?
FC: Oh sure.
RB: How fast do you read?
FC: It depends on the book. I can't read Faulkner that fast. Nor can I read Dickens that fast. But I can Tolstoy like a shot. I read a Simenon novel in an hour and a half. I can read very quickly when I need to. The speed adjusts to what I am reading. It does take me three months to do the admissions—three months of reading. Half of it, right away I can tell, "He got up in the morning and he shaved and went down to the —[makes a snoring sound.] (both laugh)
RB: Your piece "Father Feelings" caused me to recall the observation that, "We all have two lives, one we learn with and one where we live what we have learned." Could you have written that piece after the birth of your first two sons?
FC: The first part of your observation is correct I don't know about the second part. I don't know if it was because I had learned. I think it was exactly the right time to write that piece because it was my last son. The last contains all of them, in a funny way. When my first two boys were born I was quite young and tremendously self-preoccupied—all worried about myself. That's changed—I'm not so self-preoccupied. I'm much more liable to simply sit down with him and chew the fat—talk to him about Tony Bennett, who he loves. There's more time to be with the young child. Of course, I knew when he was born that this was my last child. So you think about it more. I saw all three of them yesterday. Tim [the youngest] was almost like a practice child for them [the older sons]. I'm a grandfather now, my oldest has two boys and he practiced a little bit on Tim (laughs). It's gets complicated, you know. It was the right time in my life, not so much because I learned anything but just because I had become more thoughtful and less preoccupied.
RB: The fatherhood role has changed a lot in less than a generation.
RB: There is not a lot of good commentary or advice.
FC: No, there isn't. I read a few things and it's surprising how little there is. There is some bullshit, of course. I meant what I wrote. I didn't have a father. So in being a father to these three young men at different stages I made the father that I didn't have and inhabited that role. In that sense I learned something.
RB: That sounds like an inversion of the Jose Marti phrase, "I am the son of my son."
FC: Yeah. Well, yeah. You could play around with that a lot. Sure.
RB: I was struck by the observation you made that your generation was the last in which being a teenager was nothing.
FC: The lowest of the low. We weren't organized. Hey, it was the Eisenhower years. It was the '50s. Being a teenager was nothing. There weren't enough of us. We had no economic power base the way the kids did in the '60s. We didn't have any money. We worked all the way through school. When I was Styvesant I had a job and every summer we would work. Particularly as teenagers in the early '50s there wasn't any sense of a culture.
RB: What about the juvenile-delinquency hysteria?
FC: Yeah there was a stereotype of juvenile delinquency and gangs. But that was rather special and exotic. It was more like Doris Day and things like that. The buying power of the kids in the '60s, that's why there is all this shit on the radio because the kids have the money to buy it. Otherwise, there would be music. In our day, we didn't have any money, we had jobs. I spent the money I earned to eat and buy paperback books—25 cents for thin ones and 35 cents for the thick ones—and go to the movies. That was it. In those days it was possible, there was a cigar store on Lexington Avenue, to read every—they were up against the wall on racks, the length of the store, a lot of books—it was possible once you got a jump on it to actually read every fucking book sold in that store. Which, I did (laughs).
RB: Do you speculate about what might have been had you been a more dedicated musician?
FC: That's part of what Body & Soul was. It came out of a number of things but one of them was, "I wonder what would have happened if I had a good teacher and had the discipline." I got pretty good just teaching myself, so it's not impossible that I could have been good. And then I thought he'll be much, much better. Because I have had just enough of a taste of it, playing public and when I had the quintet. There were special nights when I had just a little taste of what that feels like when everybody in the band is an inch and a half off the floor. I know what that means. So I knew enough of it to be able to go in imaginatively. And of course, books and music have been the two big influences in my life.
RB: You seem to have the best of both worlds. You play. You had one of the giants [Charles Mingus] of 20th century music commend you…
FC: Boy, that freed me of a lot of self-doubt and worries. When he came up and played with me. I thought, "Well, maybe I can't play in E flat or F sharp"—which on a jazz piano you should be able to play in all keys. I can't play in F sharp to save my life. I can't even play in C sharp. There were all sorts of lacunas and vast areas where I lagged. But he freed me. I thought, "Fuck, if he gets up from his dinner. Crazy, manic-depressive, I don't care. Comes up here picks up the bass and plays with me for an hour, I'm doing something right." We played—as I say in the book—several times. He would come to my club and sit in. I never officially played with him it was just sitting in, late at night mostly. Sometimes at Bradley's, three o'clock in the morning.
RB: Do you still play?
FC: Yeah, but I have arthritis. I don't play quite as much. I play at least once a week with a bass player and once in a while with a group.
RB: The book includes an essay on small-town America. You spend eight or nine months a year in Iowa City, Iowa…
FC: …which I love. I'm a completely born-again Midwesterner. I hope the secret doesn't get out how much better and cheaper it is to live there, and more satisfying and civilized. Well, Tim [the youngest child] was a babe in arms when we went there and his whole life has been Iowa and Nantucket. When we drive East, its the cliché, He says, "Geez, nobody smiles around here. What's the matter?" (laughs)
RB: So Iowa City hasn't been franchise-infested and re-gentrified?
FC: No, no.
RB: Too far away?
FC: I think so and it's a research university in a small town. There is no town/gown struggle. It's very civilized. There aren't enough good restaurants. I miss the food and, of course, there isn't any jazz or music to speak of except what comes through. Wynton [Marsalis] comes through every couple of years and plays in this big Federal arts Palace, Hatcher Auditorium.
RB: No university jazz program?
FC: Yes, there is and it's quite good. We have a band. We call it Close Enough. I named it. There are two pros and a kid guitar player and university vice president. So I said we better be honest, let's call ourselves, Close Enough. (laughs).
RB: You are person who grew up in the big city and now you live in a place distant from the so-called cultural center…
FC: …that stuff is important when you are young and you believe there is a center. You really think there is something there. It really turns out there isn't. But it's important to believe that when you are young and you are growing and you have to meet people and all of that. I left New York when I was 35 and I lived in Boston for about six years and then I worked in Washington and commuted between Washington and Boston. Then I went to Iowa. Now I don't like to come east. It's too much hassle. I don't like flying, it's no fun any more and it's uncomfortable and it takes forever and you get pushed around. I feel like I am closer to center of American literary culture than anyone I know. This could be an illusion but I think I am.
RB: Because of the workshop. You think the workshop is the center.
FC: Absolutely. Without question.
FC: Because they come. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. They see that in the 2001 class 25% get published.
RB: There are a lot of good writing programs today. Maybe the way to measure their worth is by counting published graduates?
FC: I don't know if there is a way to quantify it. I don't spend a tremendous amount of time worrying about that. The fact is, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They keep coming. And they come to Iowa when they are offered a lot of money to go to other places. They know the people they are going to be with are the crème de la crème of their generation.
RB: How do you explain that?
FC: I don't know. It started off because it was the first one. In the very beginning Engle could get very big names for not very much money. It began like that and then you had people like Flannery O'Connor. That didn't hurt. Much later you had people like John Irving. That didn't hurt. And Vonnegut completely renewed his career there. He was almost finished as a writer until he came out there to teach. He wrote Slaughter-House Five and the whole thing started. All the way along the line something happened to revivify it and keep it going. Donald Justice was a perfect influence in terms of American Poetry. He's right down the middle. He's not bullshitting anyone. He's a really good, honest writer and a tremendous talent. That influenced a whole generation of American poets.
RB: There's you and Marylynne Robinson. Who else has been there a long time?
FC: Actually McPherson has been there a long time. And Ethan [Canin] is the newcomer…
RB: When I spoke to him he said he loves Iowa City.
FC: Oh yeah. He's got two kids. Hey, the schools are great. There are tennis courts and swimming pools. I love to pay my taxes in Iowa. Hey, wonderful! I'm involved and go over to the high school and talk to the students and classes and try to de-mystify some of the stuff about writing and the workshop. The whole state of Iowa is proud of it and aware of it. That makes a difference too.
RB: I read a review by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post that your take on the critics of Keith Jarrett, that American music had been ruined for a long time by academic forces, why couldn't that same argument be used against the workshop(s) and American literature?
FC: …I was thinking of Schoenberg and serial music and what I attacked in Body & Soul. Where he is coming from, I don't know? I'm not what you would call an academic writer. My work doesn't seem to me to be particularly academic. Each book is different. The first was an autobiography, the second was a book of short stories, the third was a big fat novel…
RB: …I can guess where he is coming from…
FC: …Where is he coming from?
RB: It would seem that he thinks that if writers go to school than means they are academic.
FC: It depends what you call a school and depends what goes on. If he is talking about the people who went to the workshop he has his head so far up his ass there is no point talking to him. Holy mackerel, there are too many writers, all over the place, writing different styles, different subjects, different approaches…
RB: You do, in the book, state that there is no such thing as an Iowa story or fiction.
FC: That's the calumny, that's the calumny…
RB:…that's what people who don't or aren't paying close attention think: if writers are going to schools and workshops somehow that the fiction, stories and narrative are being manufactured. That there is something desiccating about going to school to learn how to write.
FC: I can see how that would happen. In fact, I believe that you are right that there are a lot of workshops around the country and as you say a lot of them are good. But I am much more impressed by the fact that perhaps 75% of them are counterproductive and are being run by people who think they know what they are doing but don't. One of the strengths of the Iowa Workshop is the writers who are there not so much as teachers but coaches. That's what we are. We are coaching and editing. The fact that we are doing it in a protected environment which happens to be a university—that's a name. That's all that is. We are doing what editors used to do in the '30s. We are doing what Maxwell Perkins used to do.
RB: And what better editors do these days…
FC: Some editors do it but fewer. There are not too many. Why did everyone go to Paris in those days? To hang out with other like-minded people. So, that is happening at Iowa too. They learn from each other and they learn a great deal and it speeds things up for them. But the idea that we teach a technique or have a pedagogical philosophy or we have theory—the idea that it's a linear experience, is ridiculous. It's a circle. Everybody teaches it a different way. I don't really care about it that much but sometimes it irritates me. Like that Exquisite Corpse guy attacking workshops with his shotgun approach. As if there is something wrong. As if you have to be isolated and lonely and alone in a cave, gnawing a few bones with out enough to eat and be deprived and then you can be an artist.
RB: What you are railing against is a perception which in part is that writing has become a career and that people go to workshops to find out how to get agents and enter into the vocational training as opposed to doing the work. That seems to be a perception.
FC: And for some people that might be true. There is the stuff called 'pobiz,' poetry business. I think that poetry is in more trouble in that regard. I don't see a problem myself. Maybe I'm blind or insensitive to things that other people can see that I can't see because I'm in it. But what am I in? What does it feel like subjectively? I can't wait for workshop. I can't wait to talk—the level of discourse is so high and exciting. After 16 years it still surprises me and amazes me and doesn't repeat itself. It's amazing. It's wonderful. The thing is, if the books resembled each other or if there was any way that you could tie them together by any other factor than the fact that these people went to Iowa—but failing that it's just noise.
RB: Yardley's review was also interesting in that he seemed compelled to end on an up beat note by citing your encounter with Charles Mingus.
FC: I thought it was kind of a confused review. I was very happy that he treated me—obviously—with respect. I was flattered by that. I think that there are too many different things in the book to write a short little piece about it. There's music, there's jazz music, there's so called classical music. There's pedagogy. There's fatherhood. There's women: there's a lot of stuff in it. But, I don't learn anything from reviews. I haven't learned anything from any of the reviews of any book I wrote, including the first one. Which had hysterical reviews—you would have thought they were talking about Jesus Christ.
RB: Your book reminds me of Edward Hoagland's Compass Points…
FC: …that's on my list. I can only really read freely in the summer. There are a lot of books that I should have read, that I haven't.
RB: That's true for a lot of people. I'm astounded that you can read so quickly.
FC: Well, it's a blessing and an accident. It doesn't mean anything.
RB: Well, it means that you can read a lot more books.
FC: Yes it does. If you look at it that way. I'm sure that I have read—I don't know who to compare myself to?
RB: Thomas Jefferson?
FC: No, we have to stay in this time. Let's take an intelligent history professor with an interest in the novel. I'm sure I have read four or five times more books than he has. (long pause). It's a drug. I'm a junkie. It's my drug.
RB: In "Dogs Bark…" you claim that the Beats co-opted jazz and didn't understand it.
FC: That's correct.
RB: None of them?
FC: They thought it was all some kind of expressive jungle music without any form. As I say in the book you have to compare it to baroque music, in terms of a figured bass, in terms of the harmony and in terms of the lines. It's very, very organized music. It sounds sometimes completely wild. But it never is. Never.
RB: Were the Beats just reverse racists, lionizing the music out of need to patronize black artists?
FC: No, just their narcissism, their blindness to anything except their own experiment and their desire co-opt other energetic things that were happening into their experiments, to give them more energy. The one thing you have to say about them is that they were sincerely interested in America, in the country.
RB: Any thoughts of writing another novel?
FC: Oh I don't know. I don't think of writing as a career. I never have. It's not impossible.
RB: Body & Soul, your novel, was based, in part, on your wondering what might have been in your life.
FC: To some extent. It was also driven by anger as my first book was. Anger at the fact that serious American music, jazz aside, had been more or less destroyed for thirty or forty years by Schoenberg and serial music. It wiped out American music for at least 25 years. Let's say that. So that made me angry. I really disliked that whole philosophy of codification. It was very Nazi-like. It was another ism and I am suspicious of isms. So that book was driven by anger at that and also a fantasy of what would have happened and also it was a homage to the great 19th century novels that got me through life.
RB: So you'd have to get angry again to write a novel?
FC: Hey, I don't know. I might write a novel again if my feet feel better.