Frederick Busch on North: A Novel

Frederick BuschFrederick Busch was born in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. He received an M.A. from Colgate, where he later taught literature until his recent retirement. Among his twenty-seven books are the novels I Wanted a Year Without Fall (1971), Breathing Trouble (1974), Manual Labor (1974), The Mutual Friend (1978), Rounds (1979), Take This Man (1981), Invisible Mending (1984), Sometimes I Live in the Country (1986), Closing Arguments (1988), Absent Friends (1989), War Babies (1989), Harry and Catherine (1990), Long Way from Home (1993), Girls (1997), The Night Inspector (1999), A Memory of War (2003), and North: A Novel (2005). He has also published four story collections and four works of nonfiction. Fredrick Busch lives with his wife Judy in upstate New York.

In North, Busch returns to the protagonist in Girls, Jack (and his nameless dog). Jack has not gotten over the events recounted in the earlier novel and has landed at a resort on “hot, wet countryside of the Carolina coast” at a dead-end job—security guard at that resort. He meets a vacationing Manhattan lawyer who offers him a job and an escape from his dreary existence. Jack returns to New York state, the landscape of his former life, in search of the lawyer’s troubled nephew and encounters his own past, as well as the mysterious circumstances of nephew Tyler Pearl’s disappearance. And it is here that the multilayered story plays out as something of a whodunit—but more in keeping with Busch’s familiar concerns, an examination of the vagaries of memory and the power of family ties.

Fred Busch, whose writings I came upon in the early ‘90s, represents the kind of writer who is at the core of contemporary literary fiction—who, if we take heed of the concerns he airs below, may be an endangered species. With great regularity every three or four years, and sometimes sooner, he publishes fiction that deserves an audience as much as any of the better-known types such as John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates. This would be the fourth or fifth time I have spoken with Frederick Busch, and I believe that what follows shows the ongoing pleasure I have taken from them. The hope, of course, is that you will feel the same.

Robert Birnbaum: The last time we spoke you were on the verge of retiring from teaching?

Frederick Busch: 2003 is when I left.

RB: Is that the last time we spoke?

FB: I was here for Memory of War—which came out in ’03. Right on the nose.

RB: Details, details. What’s changed since then?

FB: More time to write.

RB: That’s good.

FB: That’s what I wanted. I left early and forsook a wonderful setup. That is to say, they paid me more than I deserved to teach less than they wanted me to. It was good. I wanted more time to write. I have found myself writing poetry shortly after I retired. Which I hadn’t done in forty years.

RB: How juvenile. [laughs]

FB: It’s interesting; the poems were not. I ended up writing a rather interesting cycle of poems.

RB: To be published?

FB: Some have been published. In Georgia Review and Five Points. Good places. Umm, what else changed? My son, who is a major in the Marine Corps reserves, is now doing his second tour of duty in Iraq. And that is a change I find unacceptable. As does his wife and infant baby. He is in Ramati, which is a toxic city to begin with. We’re scared. So that’s going on. Judy [Fred’s wife] retired around the same time. And we’re having fun. We live up in the hills between where Colgate is and Cooperstown. I am edging closer to the Hall of Fame. I don’t know that I am going to get in. [both laugh]

RB: Granted that fleeting impressions can be misleading, but you have always struck me as a sunny, upbeat kind of guy.

FB: That’s misleading.

RB: It takes something to do that, to present that face.

FB: Well, you owe it to people. I keep coming down from work—I work upstairs in the barn, a ways from the house—and I come down and Judy sort of looks up to see what does the visage suggest. And I smile and I say, “Yeah, I got something really funny going.” And she rolls her eyes, because she knows when she starts to read it she is going to cry. So I don’t think the work has ever been sunny. Although I think I have managed moments of humor.

RB: Assuming that you were the sunny avuncular, jocular guy—

FB: Nah, I’m a fraud.

RB: —I intended to ask what it took for you to imagine certain dark emotions and that conversion to language. In any case, you couldn’t be farther removed from the character in North [and Girls].

FB: Well, I’m not big and rugged and capable, and he is. He is looking for words. He doesn’t have words. And yet he is telling you his novel. And the tension between those two conditions I find irresistible.

RB: That he is, in some ways, inarticulate?

FB: And yet it’s a first-person novel, and so he is articulate. His language consistently fails him and maybe it consistently fails all of us. I don’t know. I’m drawn to that. I am nothing like him, I don’t think. He is a rescuer; I am a responsible middle-class father and husband. There is a world of difference. I’m drawn to him by his—by the simplicity of his language. It’s a hard-won simplicity. It’s hard to find the right words to use with him when you are writing him. I had just finished writing and publishing A Memory of War, which is such a complicated novel, and even the sentences were long and there was this constant sense of several things, psychologically and mentally, going on at once. And I longed for the simplicity of Jack or the appearance of the simplicity of Jack, the narrator of North. I don’t think I am like him, but I wish I could be.

RB: He is an admirable man.

FB: He wants to be a good man. And he works at it and tries.

RB: I have written about this in Bark magazine: the dog who is not given a name in the novel, is a real character—

It's hard to read real fiction. It takes time. It takes a sustained attention. You can't as easily zoom in and out of it as you can nonfiction. Nonfiction for the most part is facts.

FB: Jack doesn’t have enough words.

RB: That’s the reason?

FB: Yeah.

RB: I attributed it to some other idiosyncrasy.

FB: He just never named him. You would think—he was with the dog for 15 years—[and] you would think he would have named him. There is that half–boy’s book, half–adult, Hondo [Louis L’Amour]: this man would sort of growl in his western way and call the dog “Dog.” But Jack can’t even call the dog “Dog.” He just doesn’t have the words.

RB: The relationship, unlike instances where there is a dog or pet in some stories . . . This is a real relationship.

FB: Yeah.

RB: It’s not a narrative device

FB: It’s an intimacy. When you—you know this—when you are writing a character, what the character says is obviously crucial. But what the character doesn’t say is absolutely as important as his words. And these two creatures live together in remarkable symbiosis with almost nothing being said.

RB: Except later in the book every now and then he finds himself talking to an empty front seat. Would he have been talking if the dog were present?

FB: In the novel from which North grew, the novel Girls, there we a couple of scenes, as I recall. I haven’t reread the whole book, in which Jack does talk to the dog as they go about their rounds.

RB: That’s a little odd to me—not rereading the first book. If this was movie, you’d want to be certain about the continuity, yes?

FB: Well, I sort of knew enough of the former events. What I didn’t want to do was imitate myself. And it’s easy to do. I knew the structure. I knew there would be a one-word title. One-word chapter names. I knew that Jack wouldn’t have a last name and his dog wouldn’t have any name. And I knew that a crucial moment would come in a cornfield, just as it does in Girls. And I felt that was all I needed to know. I remembered enough.

RB: I have to ask: Will there be a third book? You kind of left it—

FB: I left it so that it could be. Just to leave myself an option. I don’t think I want to write a third book. But the more people talk to me about it, the more I think maybe I do. I don’t know.

RB: It’s not like you have drawn everything out of this guy. He is a kind of—not mystery exactly, but I do want to know more about him.

FB: If I were to write about him again, it would have to be in a situation where language was required of him. I don’t know in what way. It would have to be the essence of the book So that the man would find words with which to live.

RB: If he reunites with Merle, the woman that he has struck up something with, a high-powered lawyer, it strikes me that it would be the kind of relationship that would require him to be verbal.

FB: Could be. I just don’t know.

RB: She may not show up at all in his future?

FB: Don’t know.

RB: On the other hand, what would have to show up again would be another dog.

FB: Would have to. There have to be dogs.

RB: I am wary about getting into this too much, but has there been much review attention for North?

FB: It’s officially published, and it’s happening slowly, but it’s beginning to happen. There was a big rave in the Washington Post, I hear. I don’t read my reviews. I was told about it. We’ll find out.

RB: Some writers command a wave of attention when their books come to market, and some don’t. You’ve been writing well long enough where this book ought to have been greeted with some noise or buzz.

FB: It would have been nice, but I don’t feel like I have to be responsible for that sort of thing

RB: That’s good.

FB: And even the analysis of it. What are you going to say about the responsibility of the New York Times to fiction? Serious fiction. What are you going to say about the Boston Globe’s responsibility for the state of serious fiction and poetry in this country or the Philadelphia Enquirer? Make up your own list. It’s a different time from even two years ago.

RB: You think?

FB: Yeah. The culture is with some rapidity fearing its imagination. I don’t know why. Imagination is not of interest. The New York Times—my wife and I were just looking idly at it since we knew it was safe—

RB: [laughs]

FB: —since there was nothing in it about me that week. And there was one page on which there were five short paragraphs about novels. One paragraph per novel. And the rest of the magazine was about nonfiction.

fred buschRB: That’s been a complaint since the post-McGrath regime came to the NYTBR.

FB: That’s what he [Sam Tanenhaus, NYTBR editor] cares about.

RB: Ed Champion, a literary journalist, weekly assesses the Book Review and awards Tanenhaus brownie points based on his well-articulated values.

FB: [chuckles] Good.

RB: More often then not, the discussion devolves to a question of why fiction is being tossed aside.

FB: It’s being ignored. It’s hard to read real fiction. It takes time. It takes a sustained attention. You can’t as easily zoom in and out of it as you can nonfiction. Nonfiction, for the most part, is facts, and it’s “how I was mistreated. I was mistreated. Were you mistreated? Weren’t we all mistreated?”

RB: I don’t really give two shits about this—and I wonder where I went wrong—but the interest in Deep Throat reminded me about Charles Baxter’s brilliant essay "Burning Down the House," the one about the era of dysfunctional narrative.

FB: Oh yeah.

RB: Maybe we are at a point where fiction is more real—realer—[and] makes more sense than so-called reality?

FB: I believe [Jorge Luis] Borges said it, and [James] Joyce said it. But it’s true, yeah.

RB: These days, why would people want to deal with characters who seemingly made sense in what they did and facts that cohered as opposed to—I keep seeing this quote by some senior White House official, ”We’re in charge. We’re an empire. We make reality.”

FB: Yeah. They don’t, and they know it, and that’s why they say it. The people who make reality are angry peasants with old cannon shells wired together, an anti-vehicle device. They blew up a vehicle my son was riding in; he had shrapnel shredded through his arm.

RB: Why isn’t that sufficient to send him home?

FB: They didn’t maim him. It was a clean wound. That’s how desperate they are. Leaving off fiction and talking politics . . . They don’t make reality. They say they do. Rumsfeld says he does, but his soldiers keep dying for lack of the armor he sent to protect them. And that’s a fact he can’t argue.

RB: This far removed from some of the real theaters of action, there seems to be a perception of a reality that the new Imperialists have created that is accepted.

FB: It’s the accepting part that astonishes me. The audience, the so-called readers, of the so-called fiction, that astonishes me. That those bozos got elected. A bunch of third-rate pirates invading a fourth-rate banana republic to plunder it is what that administration has been, and that they have been getting away with it, is what crushed me.

RB: Care to speculate why?

FB: People do not read, by and large. They watch television, and that’s little fragments—troops march gloriously down the main street of Baghdad today: Shock and Awe and now a word from our brassiere correspondent. There’s no information. You have to sit and read a couple of newspapers that you then have to distrust and hold at [an] angle as you read them, to get some facts, to find out what is being said. We’ve had the big lie.

RB: I was thinking about the dysfunctional narrative, with so-called anonymous sources. But the Fox network has perfected the “Some say” preface as a pretext of introducing some dubious, ridiculous specious or red herring. Every newscast said or implied that Deep Throat’s identity was something everyone wanted to know about. America’s been on pins and needles for thirty-odd years awaiting this revelation.

FB: You and I wanted to know.

RB: I didn’t. I could[n't] care less.

FB: I did.

RB: And the worst thing about these things is that everyone had to bring that equivocating bumbler David Gergen. This guy is a very oily circle-walker.

FB: Mr. Earnest, yeah. He has served everybody with equal disloyalty.

RB: [laughs] And now he is at Harvard.

FB: Well, where else to go after? Periodically there have been little items in the New York Review about graduate students and professors at Harvard who were sold to the McCarthyites by a timid administration. Where did the best and the brightest come from? That’s where they came from. So it’s quite right that he go there.

RB: Where does Harvard’s reputation as a liberal bastion and leftist hotbed come from?

FB: Harvard. [laughs]

RB: What number book is this for you? Do you keep count?

FB: Twenty-seven. Yeah, I’m proud of that. To stay alive in that profession, for people to squander money to publish your books. That’s a good sign.

RB: You’ve been [publishing] at Norton for quite some time.

FB: A bunch. Four or five books. And I will stay with them if they will stay with me. I think it’s a marriage. I have a wonderful editor who believes in fiction and poetry. She herself is a novelist and poet.

RB: Jill?

FB: Jill Bialosky. The whole crew there is very literate and they publish—I had an idea once for a book, I didn’t want to do it, but I told Jill that they might make money by publishing this book. It was about publishing. And there was a pause, and Jill, who is very seemly and composed, said, “Oh Fred, I don’t want to publish bullshit. I just want to publish literature.” And I thought, “Kindly find me two other editors in the entire world who will repeat that.” My editor in France, at Gallimare, is one such. It’s rare. So, yeah, I like them very much.

And we are herding the young in that direction so that they are not sitting still and contemplating, God damn it, a page of exquisite prose by Charles Dickens.

RB: As we are talk about these subsidiary matters, does it seem to you that there is more attention being paid to the kind of inside baseball aspects of the publishing business?

FB: If you took that away, the New York Observer would fold, or has it folded? The pages would turn white instead of pink. I notice when I see the New York Post that Page 6 will periodically have little publishing items. It’s something dreadful, like Tom Wolfe has a stain on his white suitpants. But it’s still, in a way, tangential. It’s gossip. They prefer that to real information—such as all the publishing houses in New York lost enough to float the national debt of Bolivia last year, or something like that.

RB: Do you go to the book expos or trade shows?

FB: I have. I don’t know why. I guess I had a book coming out.

RB: You were encouraged to do a charm initiative?

FB: And sometime the sales department thinks that.

RB: I liked Maud Newton’s poignant question, “Why would I want to be in rooms full of networking strangers?”

FB: [laughs] That, of course, is precisely why people want to be there. They network.

RB: Not attractive, at all.

FB: That’s not what a critic or an artist ought to be doing.

RB: I ask you about this stuff because that’s what a lot of the public chatter is about—advances and who is selling out and in what way—

FB: That’s right.

RB: And critics seems to be much more ad hominem and methodological than about content and—

FB: —stuff. There is no interest left in stuff. If you look at the bylines of the reviewers in the Times, say. Every other one will say something like “Joe Murphy lives in Seattle and is writing a book.” So why is Joe Murphy reviewing so-and-so’s novel? Let’s get a novelist in there to review so-and-so’s novel. I don’t know why that is. It’s the conquests of the commentators.

RB: The more disingenuous editors bring in novelists who have axes to grind.

FB: They hope. If there is some blood on the pages then you have some readership. Yeah. I suspect that may be part of it.

RB: I have given up reading most reviews. Unless the writer is someone who I would read anything by. So in that case it doesn’t matter whether it’s a review.

FB: Then it’s the writing.

RB: I have even taken up the sport.

FB: Do you enjoy it?

RB: I like the discipline of having to write 700–1000 words. I don’t write negative reviews. I won’t write about a book that I don’t like.

FB: Good. I returned a book to the Times once because I really liked the author as a literary figure. The author was not a great writer in the genre in which I was being asked to review—I couldn’t do this disservice because the writer had served literature all his or her life. And so I said to the editor, “I have to return the proofs to you. I just got them, so we are not killing a lot of time. Please bail me out of this.” And the editor never gave me work again. There were other editors at the Times, and it was ok. But that editor dropped me.

RB: Do these reviews make any difference? Are there critics who are influential enough to make a difference? It’s not like there are any Edmund Wilsons around.

FB: No. God no. No, no, no. There is no one of stature who is—although I suppose Stanley Fish would argue with you. Almost anybody in the Afro-American studies department at Harvard—

RB: Is there one still? I thought the department decamped for Princeton?

FB: Nah, there are still some. And let’s say at Yale and Princeton. I suppose when you go down in the categories of commentary there are still some power spots. But I agree with you—there are some hack reviewers who do it well. I can’t think of any large people whom I feel the need—well, I always want to read Gore Vidal’s nonfiction. Because everything he writes is an essay and it’s worth reading.

RB: Yes. And he’s fun and engaging and original.

FB: He’s a wonderful rascal. I hate to see age beating up on him. He is one of the smart writers who the Republic needs. He’s a real libertarian.

RB: The little volume he wrote recently, Inventing a Nation, was a wonderful precis of the fundamental issues of the USA’s structural origins. You get more insight out of that than—

FB: Who’s the publisher? It was a small house—

RB: I think it was Yale University Press.

FB: Not one of the mainstream houses, and that struck me as odd. But anyway, thank goodness for Gore Vidal. And there are some others. But, my god, there is no Edmund Wilson, no, who make book reviewing an art that produces essays, real essays.

RB: There’s James Wood.

FB: Yeah.

RB: He would be a person with some weight. He is paid attention to.

FB: Yes. He sometimes feels the responsibility to produce an obiter dictum that may be better served if he came back to it some months afterwards. His intelligence is unquestioned.

RB: And his enthusiasm.

FB: And his breadth of coverage.

RB: In person, he seemed more flexible than on the page.

FB: Of course, he had the experience of writing a novel hadn’t he? He knew what he rest of us went through. He knew that it was an impossible task.

RB: True. At this point do you still feel charged with the same kind of urgency and passion about writing and its importance?

FB: The importance of it to me, is one thing. Yes, I feel that. The importance to the world of what we scribblers write is in doubt, I would think.

RB: You think?

FB: Yeah.

RB: What are you paying attention to? The NEA study?

FB: God no! The lives of men and women I know who are writers—they’re concerned—their sense of what they are saying getting through to enough people to matter. I wish I could name their names, and I won’t just so they are not embarrassed and may not want to talk that way about themselves. But these are brilliant people, and I don’t think they are being heard. I am not sure people want to hear them. And I don’t know why. We have just been trying to figure out why. But I don’t think the world is particularly responsive to—our world, the culture we are in, to art right now—

RB: Less so than a generation ago?

FB: Yeah, I think so. I would say yes, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the usual culprits people try to blame—computers and video and all that. But I don’t know if that’s it. The education of young people is narrowing. They cannot have the scope they used to have. They are being taught in high school by people earnest, still, but maybe less well-prepared than we would want them to be—but not because they are stupid or churlish. It’s harder to get hold of the world. It’s harder to understand the world—

RB: —I wouldn’t argue with that—

FB: —To encompass the literature necessary for the information.

RB: I am concerned about so much emphasis on passing tests. What the process seems to be about is to teach for the tests.

FB: As a very brilliant young woman named Francesca Delbanco, daughter of my friend Nick Delbanco—and herself a first novelist—as she said when she was in high school—we were at Nick and Elena’s house—she showed us an essay she had written for the school newspaper, and it was about being a high school kid groomed to get into college, and the last sentence said, “Really, there must be more about high school than getting out of it and into college?” I thought that was a wonderful wisdom. You suddenly saw those four years aimed at leaving, but not at producing anything while there, at passing the big test, which meant getting into college. That’s four, then there’s the four years of college, which are aimed at getting you a job, getting into a graduate school. Making sure you get you’re A+s instead of merely your A-s—which you were born . . . entitled to . . . anyway. That’s eight years, and then there’s graduate school and what’s that about? Getting a job.

buschRB: And then the job is to make you a good consumer.

FB: The job is to pay off the Saab so that you can step up to a Lexus or something and get thinner and have a better health club membership. It’s quite scary. And we are herding the young in that direction so that they are not sitting still and contemplating, Goddamn it, a page of exquisite prose by Charles Dickens, which is filled with rage about poverty and the need of a household to survive. That’s not in the table for consideration now. And people don’t understand that beautiful rage of Dickens because they don’t share it. They haven’t got time to worry about an oppressed culture, a subclass. They are worrying about the Lexus: “Wonder if I can step up to an Infiniti?” or whatever comes next. You have me pontificating. You have to get me off this.

RB: Well, since you are echoing things I think about, I’m fine with it. I console myself with the notion that the world that appreciates the Dickensian rages and such is always a small world—what’s changed is that mainstream is noisier. But there is a constant constituency that for reasons that may never be understood but will always be drawn to seeing life through literary, artistic lenses.

FB: I hope you’re right but I feel they are outnumbering us. The “they” are outnumbering us. Maybe one just feels that because one is a practitioner of an art.

RB: Did you have fewer students at the end of your teaching career who were interested in literature and writing?

FB: I always had good students. Colgate is a college with good students. They were less able to read large quantities of difficult prose at a sitting, as I required of them. But that’s not their fault. That is television and computers diminishing that skill—they were less well-prepared in high school. And that’s not their teachers’ fault. Their teachers were teaching for the tests, and they [the students] were less committed perhaps to a life of the mind than a life of money than I would have wished, but maybe it’s because I have changed in that direction.

RB: I ran into my son’s pediatrician on the train once [which I took to be a good sign], and he told me that he was amazed and shocked that his adolescent patients knew what the income scales of various professions. Ten-, twelve-, thirteen-year-olds know this stuff.

FB: That’s frightening. The parents are probably not trying to keep them from focusing on that either.

RB: It’s hopeful, though, that people still want to write and read. Good books are still being published.

FB: This is true. But let’s look at the books. Let’s look at what the books are that are being produced. More and more they are being made like movies. To sell. They are being tested out. Not as scientifically as films are, perhaps. But Hollywood is the model for publishing, more and more. Not just blockbusters either. Do we want fact or do we want fiction? We want fact. If you can propose a memoir, even if you are eighteen years old—and what do you remember? What are you memeing? If you can propose a memoir, I believe someone will pay you to write it. And you will get a contract for nonfiction. And if it is about victimology in one way or another than you’ll get more money. It’s a sensation. It’s what the situation is that they now want. Let’s bend it like Beckham. There is a ghastly movie about homogenizing people—nah, it’s not true, it’s also a nice film. There is good human rapport created but you can see people managing to turn into cute jokes, deep anthropological problems that fester and hurt them, the fester and the hurt are being ignored. Just the cute resolutions. I think that’s happening in what’s being published and how it’s being published.

RB: There are nearly 200,000 books published yearly, and I don’t doubt there are some that follow that model but—

FB: —there are also good books published, you’re right.

RB: When I hear complaints about how much crap is published, I can only refer to my own experience of every year finding more than enough good books to read.

FB: Who reads them besides you? And that’s going to affect how those writers are dealt with and what you’ll find is that there are very few two- and three- and four- and five-book novelists compared to first-book novelists. First-book novelists and storywriters haven’t yet failed and so it’s easier to publish them—you can gamble on a success. Whereas someone who has written four books that are highly literary and demanding and require you as a reader. They may not be republished. I am serious. I know important literary writers who can’t get published. At the end of the interview I will pour acid on my head and disappear. [both laugh] In a puff of smoke. Or take acid, one of the two.

RB: A few months ago I am waiting for Jon Foer. And I have a book I received in the mail and I start reading it—and I am really liking what I am reading. I look in the book and this guy has written five or six books. “How come I don’t know who he is?” Jon shows up. I ask him about the writer. “Oh yeah, I just met him in Virginia.” So I contacted the writer, asking if he might be coming through Boston. He responds, “My book might not be relevant by the time I get to Boston [in a few months].” And I am aghast. How did he, a writer, manage to assume and internalize the mumbo jumbo [or conventional publishing wisdom] of the short lifespan of a book? On the other hand, he has just published his sixth book and somebody still believes in him.

FB: Blessings on all of them. So we are lucky that this happens. I am pretty dour about it.

RB: So what are your thoughts about when you start another project. I’ll do the best that I can?

FB: I always write the best that I can. And I won’t publish it until I have done it right. I hope that an adult will walk in the room and take over and say, “Okay, here’s how we’ll sell this book and we will try to get it to the attention of your kind of reader.” That’s all that you can hope for. And happy accidents. Such as the assignment by well-intended publications of the review who really liked the book, and maybe it makes a little noise and maybe people read it.

RB: Is it too much it expect that having written close to thirty books, well regarded for the most part, that when your book comes out that you are automatically review-proof and will sell respectably?

FB: That’s Stephen King. That’s John Irving. They are review-proof. I don’t think most of us are. Stephen King has the exact ability that Charles Dickens had. To get to his readers in spite of or despite anything the reviews say. Do you think Stephen King fans care? I had the audacity to review Stephen King’s book on how to write.

You have to read history. You have to have a sense of history. In a way, I see my fiction as having moved in that direction—and the characters as dealing simultaneously with their personal history and with the present in which they are trying to make their way.

RB: You had written one of those.

FB: I did an anthology, Letters to a Fiction Writer, for Norton, and that’s a number of essays by practicing writers. I said some snappy stuff about Stephen King, and I was cunningly disapproving of certain parts of him. And you know that book sold in numbers that are astonishing. He was just finishing off a contract.

RB: That doesn’t seem to be a book that his core fans would be interested in.

FB: It’s by him. He can reach anybody, his readers, and they are legion because he has many, many movies.

RB: He did try to sell a book directly from the Internet, and I think that failed.

FB: I think you are right. He offered some chapters free and then the rest for a fee and people didn’t want to pay.

RB: Any grand ambitions?

FB: I have just finished a book of stories I would like to publish—Norton will publish down the road. They’re linked thematically in an interesting way. I am working on a novel for Norton that could be very nice love story. Could be fun.

RB: “Could be” meaning “too early to tell”?

FB: Meaning that I have ambitions for it to be; we’ll see what the book says. I am just at the early stages. I have just taken thirty-two pages and reduced it to six. So I feel I am making progress.

RB: That’s the way you do it?

FB: Sometimes. Depends if you cut the crap put then six out of thirty-two is not bad.

RB: A la Elmore Leonard. Do you read genre stuff?

FB: Sure, I love thrillers. I would even read certain science fiction, although I haven’t been a devotee for many years.

RB: I stopped with Dune.

FB: I read a lot of poetry. I read some history.

RB: Has reading poetry been continuous?

FB: All my life. My heroes are people like Philip Levine, who is simply like a god to me, as a writer. And he is a very good man, too.

RB: Meaning?

FB: I think he is a decent fellow. He writes beautiful essays as well as poems. But, yeah, I’m having fun with the genre stuff. Especially when I am writing a novel I try not to read great prose stylists into which I will fall. I know when I am going bad, for example, when suddenly a novel of mine begins to sound like Robert Stone but with a water chaser. It means that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing because I am such an admirer of Bob Stone’s work that I fall into imitating him when I get into trouble in my own prose. So what I try to do is read stuff that won’t deal with the dangerous dark things I hope I am writing about.

RB: Do you see North has a thriller?

FB: That’s what it is called. No, I see North as novel—it’s a book about a guy, but since the publishing subculture and the academic subculture, all those subcultures, [who] are linked in the world of books sees things in categories, it’s easier for them to put things in categories; so they need to call it either a literary thriller or a crossover book, or—

RB: One reference to North was that it was a dark literary psychological thriller.

FB: There you go. Did you leave anything out?

RB: You mentioned that you read history. Tell me some of those titles?

FB: I’m an amateur, so I read what’s interesting to me. I recently read [John] Lukacs’s book on five days that shaped the world [Five Days in London May 1940]. It was a stunning little book and a great elegant piece of writing and historiography. I just bought but haven’t yet read a book—I wish I could remember the author’s name; I haven’t read anything by her before. It treats 1945 in London—the Blitz [London 1945: Life in the Debris of War, by Maureen Waller]. And I am drooling on getting into that, sitting on the deck in Maine when I get up there. We rent a place in Maine. Periodically, a book of history excites me. I have a friend named Lynne Staley, who is a professor at Colgate, and she is a superb Medievalist and she just published a big study of the fourteenth century called Languages of Power. I am not smart enough to read the whole book, but I read in it because she is an elegant prose writer and I am learning about both language and history in a turbulent time. I am just a browser.

RB: That strikes me as another failure of education. The shocking disinterest in history and the ignorance.

FB: Can we say Vietnam and then say Iraq? Let’s not, but—there was an interesting piece in Harper’s on the history of the British in Iraq. And it’s a little scary. It’s as if we went out and said, “Get me a handbook on how to completely flounder in Iraq.” You have to read history. You have to have a sense of history. In a way, I see my fiction as having moved in that direction—and the characters as dealing simultaneously with their personal history and with the present in which they are trying to make their way. So that the books are simultaneously about public and interior events. And I am having a great time getting confused and crazed writing about them.

RB: There’s too much about tariffs and treaties and not enough, if any, about the real stories or even the apocryphal ones, except for Washington and the cherry tree.

FB: You sort of need an overview, but history is beautiful stories or scary stories, yeah.

RB: Maybe we can theorize that the disinterest in historical narratives and literary fiction goes hand in hand.

FB: You work a lot on the Internet. You know the experience in the work and on the Web for awhile; you’re in no place, at no time. You’re in a cyberexistence. You are out of context, a palpable physical context.

RB: In a narcissistic womb of my own. My own imagination—

FB: Draw a box around that and what’s outside of that? Tuition payments or maybe I better cook dinner tonight.

RB: [laughs]

FB: Or something like that. And there is a lack of context in contemporary education. And contemporary consideration—because we live in those interiorities so much. Especially young kids who live by surfing the Web.

RB: Odd, though, that part of the great benefit I have gained is contact and acquaintance with a number of people [you know who you are] with whom I have pure and satisfying relationships based on our mutual love for literature and stories.

FB: That’s you and some good people.

RB: I don’t think that my experience is anomalous or an aberration.

FB: I don’t know.

RB: The new media, the cyberworld, are almost a blank page. Any group of people can coalesce around shared interests and ideals beyond sexy young Russian girls and poker and penis enlargement. I don’t feel guilty claiming that for the most part the world is represented by my own sense of it, the information that comes into my faux solipsistic cocoon and the exchanges with other monads of solipsism.

FB: Well, you have made your place in the world, and you are entitled to it. But I think there is reason to be concerned about this in the very young. You are a mature adult, and when kids grow up in what John Hawkes wrote of as “the pure white space of psychic activity,” locked in there and not being grounded to the dilemmas and needs and generosities of others, more directly, there may be a problem. I don’t know. I’m not a philosopher. I am the next thing to a jock, which is a novelist.

RB: [laughs] What comes after? Jock, novelist, [and] then?

FB: Probably butcher.

RB: So you have short stories coming—

FB: Yes, it’s called Rescue Missions and it’s about people embarking on physical journeys to help out loved ones former lovers, children, parents.

RB: Much like Jack in North, rescuers?

FB: Yeah.

RB: And a novel you are toying with. And poetry?

FB: A novel that is toying with me. I can’t imagine having the courage to ask a publisher to do a whole book of my poems. So that’s way down the road.

RB: Have you mentioned this to Jill?

FB: I wouldn’t dare, she’s a real poet.

RB: You alluded to your concern about writers who—

FB: We are all concerned about each other, those of us who have been friends for a long time. We all bitch and whine to each other. You can’t say it to your audience—through this microphone—“I’m withering. You’re killing me.” So you do it to your buddies. And there are some that don’t do it, but I am watching them with concern. I am concerned about how it’s going for them. And that’s all. And that’s maybe normal professional activity.

RB: Do you go to conferences?

FB: I went to one in Normandy. I was invited because they were talking about D-Day. And that was great. I went to one in Italy about noir.

RB: [laughs]

FB: Because Girls had been published in Italy and then [they] decided it was a noir novel and they paid my way over, and Judy and I went and had great Italian food. A professor whom I met from Portier—I don’t think I can go—they are having a conference on “The City in Literature.” And I enjoy that, and I enjoy going to campuses and reading and doing a class or teaching and then running away and not having to grade papers. I do still enjoy that. I get to meet writers, and I love writers.

RB: Read anything recently, new and astounding? Signaling a brave new world

FB: I read Leslie Epstein’s San Remo Drive, which I consider a gorgeous book. I love it. And I loved the review in the Times, which called it one of the four great novels about Hollywood. And I think that’s true.

RB: What were the other three?

FB: Bud Schulberg.

RB: What Makes Sammy Run.

FB: Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, and The Last Tycoon by [F. Scott] Fitzgerald. To put that novel in that company is astute reading. I have been reading fragments that I think will be part of book by Melanie Rae Thon, who I think is one of the geniuses of her generation and a great religious writer. She is an important writer. She is very important to me. I don’t know—I’m going to leave off ten great books I have recently read.

RB: And you’re still a baseball [and Yankee] fan—you don’t think it’s been corrupted by drugs and money?

FB: Of course, so has painting and so has music. I love baseball. What I love about baseball is that you are always waiting. Baseball is a game where you are always waiting, and then when something happens it’s like turning a kaleidoscope when you were a kid.

© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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