Frederick Busch has published 21 books of fiction, beginning in 1971 with I Wanted A Year Without Fall and including The Mutual Friend (about Charles Dickens), Girls, The Night Inspector (his novel of Herman Melville), Don't Tell Anyone, and his most recent novel, A Memory of War. He has also authored a number of books on writing: Letters to A Fiction Writer, A Dangerous Profession and When People Publish. Until recently, he taught undergraduates creative writing at Colgate University. Frederick Busch lives in upstate New York with his wife, Judy, and his aging Labradors. He is finishing up his next novel, North, working on a story cycle and dreaming of a house on the coast of Maine.
Robert Birnbaum: Mark Winegardner suggested to me that we take for granted prolific writers—he mentioned Joyce Carol Oates.
Frederick Busch: She always gets in trouble for writing a lot. Updike, too.
RB: This is your twenty-fifth book?
FB: It is.
RB: Do you have any feelings about being taken for granted?
FB: I'm sure that all writers are taken for granted. Writers were born to be taken for granted. I don't know about that theory. I once heard…
FB: It's turning now.
RB: Okay let's try it again. This is the ongoingsaga of Fred Busch…
FB: If in my novel A Memory of War youwere to allow for the fact that I do not have Fellini's genius,humor, or accomplishment, you could say it was my version of hismagnificent 8 1/2. It's a man in his middle years, a creativeman, coming to grips with his past, his present. Dreaming his past.Making it up. Making up his present. Caught between his wife anda lover and all of that wonderful dumb stuff that certain men getup caught in. That is this book and the effort to control and makeit readable and, in fact, fun at times and always interesting. AsI was saying before, before we were so rudely interrupted by thetape going off. I'm just learning how to write.
RB: The issue of autobiography in a writer's fictionseems to be belabored and yet that won't stop me from probing…you mentioned in an interview that you had an elementary schoolteacher at P.S. 152 who you finally were able to please by writinga poem.
FB: Miss White. She wanted me to die. She made itvery clear that she hoped I would die before school began tomorrow.She had a thin cartilaginous face and eyes that should have beenbeautiful—huge dreamy green blue eyes…
RB: What grade was this?
FB: Fourth grade.
RB: You were 9 years old and you have this seeminglyperfect recollection.
FB: Yeah, I do remember her. And she would lifther bony brows and open her eyes, wide as could be, and stare atyou as if she were Medusa or the basilisk and your heart would stop.It was Irish voodoo. She terrified me. And I horrified her withmy ineptitude. And then one day I wrote a poem: I have a littledogwood tree / My father planted it for me /…that's all Ican remember. That may be all of it for all I know. She adored it.She had me rewrite it. She put it up on the bulletin board, andI found that she approved of me. I realized that if I could keepwriting, I could get people to not want me to die.
FB: Thus, the man you see before you today.
RB: A perfect causal chain. In A Memory of Waryou have a instance when Alex, the protagonist, as a young student,plagiarizes a William Carlos Williams poem …
FB: I love that scene.
RB: Though the outcome is not the same, I wonderif that was triggered by your experience with Miss White?
FB: No, in fact that scene is triggered by my seventhgrade recollection of Miss Casey…
FB: Another Irishwoman. And I married an Irish woman,so I was in training. Miss Casey liked me, and I loved (emphasizes)her. She was a tall skinny kid. And she was one of those fatal olderwomen—as I was in training to try to become a male—Irevered her and she was very good to me. And she led me to thingsto read and things to write and she praised me for writing. My characterAlex has an experience with his version of Miss Casey when he plagiarizesthe Williams poem because in the history of his mother in WW IIas he imagines it, envisions it, she is wooed in part by the Germanprisoner of war who also plagiarizes a poem. So I just wanted toget back to that. Yes, absolute Buschian autobiography…loveof Irish women… fatal to me.
RB: Why is there this unabated interest in associatingthe life of the writer with his fictions?
FB: I think we want to know why things happen andwe want to know gossip. People think they are learning more aboutthe interior mechanics of a writer's work if he or his publishersays "based upon a true story." Or in a note on the book'sdust jacket, "Fredrick Busch was born in a foxhole in Englandin WW II." That sort of thing. You think you actually knowmore about the person when you have some context.
RB: That flies in the face of the basic premisewe ought to accept when we pick up a piece of fiction, that it'sall fiction.
FB: I think we want our fiction to be true. Hence,the writer works towards a kind of verisimilitude, a seeming reality.
RB: There's true and there's true…one canbe true but why do we want to hamper a story with dependence onfacts?
FB: I guess we want certainties.I don't know but in the old New Yorker, the pre-Tina BrownNew Yorker, when there were two stories in each issue anda lot of the stories were great, you would often find a story thatread like a recollection, a first-person remembrance. The old NewYorker tried to make its fiction read like fact. It was inservice of the same desire for being informed by reality. I don'tknow. I'm just guessing…
RB: There are some issues around writing fictionthat it would seem would or should be resolved but never reallyare. Like the book/movie dichotomy, people still make the comparisons.
FB: I find in English reviewing,that it has become almost a matter of course to talk about filmsand books as if they were the same. And not the film of the bookunder review. So that a writer might find his novel compared toa movie about a different subject but with a similar protagonist.
RB:I can see that, I think that's legitimate.
FB: Well, it's just like saying, "This orangeis very good although it's not a Macintosh apple."
RB: Movies are another kind of text and narrative…
FB: They are another kind of narrative, and theyshare with good fiction the quality of being a dream.
RB: Part of what leads me to blur the distinctionbetween film and literature is that I can't think of many or anygood movies that aren't based on a good script.
FB: That's right, even if it's not necessarily dialogue.
RB: Always the backbone of the movie is a good writtentext…
FB: I agree. If there is a dumb script it may bedelicious to look at because the cinema photographer was good, butit's gonna be a dumb movie. Always.
RB: Have any of your books been made into movies?
FB: No. A number have been optioned.
RB: Is that good or bad, that they have been optionedbut not made?
FB: I care in as much as I would like to have asmuch money as I am legally allowed to possess.
RB: What's your legal limit?
FB: Enough to buy a house on the coast of Maine.
FB: Isn't that pathetically small. Otherwise, Idon't care.
RB: Thomas Perry told me a story…
FB: He's a good writer.
RB:…about an actor negotiating for an optionwho decided to buy a house in Santa Fe instead.
FB: Well. Buy me a house in Maine. I often thinkthat some of my books could be good films and they may be.
RB: Seems not to be a side of the street you areworking very hard.
FB: Well, you know, I just write the books and thenwe'll see what happens. I had a novel in '97 called Girlsthat a lot of people liked, and I never felt that I had dealt fullywith the protagonist, and I am now writing a second book about him.I want to find out what happened to him. And that book was optionedfor three years by Dreamworks and a French feminist director—thewoman who made Artemesia—was very interested in makinga film of Girls. I think that will be a movie one of thesedays. It's pretty simple stuff, you can just point the camera atsome anguished man. It should be easy.
RB: Is that your next book?
FB: Yeah, it's called North, and I'm finishingit, and I will be done in March.
RB: Give me a sense of how your life works. Youteach and you write…
FB: I am leaving teaching now. I'm on leave.
FB: Uh huh. Well, I don't know. Undergraduate teaching,yeah.
RB: The occasional residency?
FB: That might be fun down the road. But right nowI want to have only one full-time job, and so I put in my papersabout a year ago and we worked it out that I would have a leaveof absence which was owing to me this semester and I'll fade outafter that.
RB: How many years?
FB: I went to Colgate in 1966. That's a long time.
RB: Do you want me to do the math?
FB: I can't do it. I'm an English teacher. My wifegives me pencil-only privileges in the checkbook.
RB: Thirty-seven years.
FB: Yeah, thirty-seven. Yeah, same place.
RB: Wow, a paradigm of stability.
FB: I'm just boring.
RB: One of these backwoods crazies.
FB: I went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop to teachfor a semester, and I loved it, and I came back the next year whenthe director Jack Lugett was on leave, and I was the acting directorfor a year and I loved that. And it was wonderful, and it's greatteaching. You have some of the best possible students in the world.And that was fun. And I always thought if I ever got a chance towork with graduate students at that level I might do that for asemester, but otherwise I just want to write. I want to read withouta pencil in my hand. When I read a Dickens novel I just want toread it for me, not for students. I am a very conscientious teacher,and I like my students, and I want them to learn this stuff, soI was always taking notes for them. Now, it's only for me.
RB: What do you think the relationship has beenfor you between teaching and writing? An obstacle or complementary?
FB: There are several truths about that. One isobvious: you are not spending all your energies on your work. Youare using a different aspect of your brain—but your brain—toprepare for school. I spent hours and hours and hours a week preparingfor my teaching. It's a religion for me. I changed the books everysemester so that I wouldn't be going on automatic pilot. And that,too, is part of that ethic. On the other hand, there is a lot ofcross-fertilization. I wrote a novel about Dickens because I wasreading about Dickens, and I had a question about him that noneof the books could really answer, so I answered it. The NightInspector about Melville certainly had its origin in my thinkingabout Melville for my students. So that was good. I would get uppretty early and write in the morning and then go in and have officehours or classes certain afternoons and Colgate was very understandingabout letting me have that schedule. Even when I was a kid and theredidn't seem to be any reason to let me have anything I wanted, theydid. I have always been very grateful for that. It was a good run.And on the other hand it will be a pleasure not to observe or participatein faculty politics. Watching the powerless fight for the metaphorsof power that they can't exercise anyway because the power doesn'tmove anything. Nothing gets done. It's a kind of a scary silliness.I'll be very happy to be away from that, although I made friendsfor life there.
RB: What do you envision for the future?
FB: I want to enjoy it instead of worrying abouthaving to get it done before I go to school. I'm doing to do a bookof stories when I finish this novel, North. And that'lltake me a while because it's a pretty complicated book—sortof a story cycle.
RB: So it's not a collection? It's not yetwritten?
FB: I've written four or five of the stories. Theyare joined by a common thematics. I don't want to say too much moreabout. They will each have certain concerns in common. I'd loveto write a non-fiction book. I just don't know anything. If I canfind something I know, I'd like to write about.
RB: Some people write these books so that they canlearn about their subject.
FB: True. I'd like to write a book on how to befive foot nine or how to be depressed, how to be bald. SomethingI know.
FB: They are very savvy. That may be a thing todo. I just don't know yet. But I want to have time to really meditateon that stuff.
RB: Time to think?
FB: Yeah, yeah. The last thing you have when youare doing a lot of writing and teaching is thinking. And that'sdumb, if you are not doing some thinking.
RB: I've not observed from your writing any evidenceof a lack of thought. What if it's the case that you needthis structure to accomplish what you have accomplished?
FB: Well, I will find out. And I will address it.I have choices now. For example, I have chosen to starve to deathby retiring during the worst economic crisis for how many years.
RB: After thirty-seven years, don't you get morethan a watch?
FB A watch and the time to wind it. (Both laugh)
RB: Didn't they give you a 401K?
FB: I gave me a 401K.
RB: Perhaps we can go back to some of things wehad talked about before we experienced technical difficulties—suchas the Joan Didion notion that we tell stories to live.
FB:I know she's absolutely right. That the drive to tell our storyis an essential part of being human. I know it. And people who can't,get sick because of it. Bertha Poppenheim who was Anna O called,among other things, called her psychoanalysis "the talkingcure." I think we need to tell our story. Somehow, somehow.
RB: In A Memory of War, the young loverand patient of Alex, Nella, describes her father as never speakingand when he, Alex Leziak, visits the man, he doesn't appear to bereticent at all.
FB: Surprise! The daughter is telling the realitythat she needs to see.
RB: I can't recall the source, but there was a reviewthat suggested that Nella's father didn't love her. I didn't getthat impression at all…
FB: I was not the person who suggested that. Heseems to me a really concerned man whose wife is a suicide and whois worried about his daughter.
RB: A recluse who seems to be anti-social.
FB: He's a poet. (laughs)
RB: A poet who makes a living writing corporatereports.
FB: That's right. We all have our cross to bear.
RB: The talking cure…what's the most extremesymptom of the inability to tell one's story, catatonia?
FB: I suppose. People who live with depressivesoften complain about that. That they don't address them, they don'ttalk to them. There is that great little exchange in Eliot's The Waste Land where the couple are sitting in their flat inLondon and the woman says, "What are you thinking?" "What,Think What, Think." And he says something about the closedcar at noon, the bath at night and some grim description of theirlives. Eliot was a depressive, that may have been about him andhis wife…
RB: Sometimes there are longer breaks in correspondencesthat I have, and I find myself asking, "What happened?"Invariably the answer is "I didn't have anything to say."I'm skeptical.
FB: Yeah, how can that be?
RB: It's like those stories about children who starttalking late, they didn't have anything to say.
FB: No, no, no. I didn't know it at the time. Iknow it now. When my father who was suffering post-traumatic combatstress after WWII—for many years I think, would sit therevery somberly, very quietly in what the Victorians would call abrown study. Just staring off. Of course, my assumption was thathe was angry. Or very, very sad. But I never knew the subject matter.I would ask him, and he would assure me that it was not me. Andthen I just didn't care as long as it was cool for me. But as Ithink of it now, that man was locked in himself. He was lookingfor words.
RB: I just began Sherwin Nuland's Lost In America, and it's about the weight of this man's father's despair on his own life.
FB: Burdened the young man? Sure it could happen.It didn't to me. I just became an elfin jolly fellow and I don'thave any problems like that.
RB: Yes, that's beautiful. Let's wait for the NewYork Times Book Review. How has it happened that has becomethe benchmark of success?
FB: I've never heard anything to contradict that.I've always hoped that there would be something else. Yeah, if theHarvard Crimson likes you you're okay.
RB: Charlie Rose?
FB: I don't think he does a lot with what you andI would call "artful fiction." It tends to be either smartgood sellers, literate non fiction. He doesn't do a lot of fictionunless it's news.
RB: Like Jonathan Franzen.
FB: Yeah, I don't think he was right away. The Oprahthing and the phenomenal success of the book. But probably the Oprahthing put him over. More power to him. He wrote a good book andhe was rewarded for it.
RB: This season's big book could be by Richard Powers?
FB: I don't know. I fear that Richard Powers isgetting abused for being brilliant. And his work requires attention.He is so smart. I think he is a genius. I think he is one of themost important writers in America.
RB: Returning to the notion that we need storiesto live, why do we not reward our best storytellers and are we alsohell bent on abusing them?
FB: We want them to tell our story.
FB: I'm serious. You don't want me writing AMemory of War by Fredrick Busch, you want me to tell the Birnbaumstory. And in a sense good writers do speak for us. Good writersgo deeper and deeper than we want them to, maybe. And they are tellingtheir versions of who we are and maybe that's not how we want itto be. Maybe we want it to be more like Dickens, more like the simple-mindedaspects of Dickens. Not the deep, dark and profoundly terrifyingblackness at the heart of Dickens but the jolly stuff—tragedieswith happy endings.
RB: Not to ask for a list, but give me a sense ofsome of the writers and movie makers and musicians—I am forevertrying to get a sense of what writers integrate into their lives.For a writer, a painter, a musician the creation goes on all thetime and even more so then when they are actually at their workspace…
FB: You are right. I take large doses of Gerry Mulligan.I imbibe heavily of Elgar and those modern English composers. Themoody Russians, Shostakovich. I read people like Richard Powers.I read Richard Powers, because he is so smart. My God. He is atthe front line. The man is opening his mouth, he's swallowing the TwentyFirst century realities and metabolizing them for us. He's makingmeaningful heartfelt emotional stories out of electricity and silicon.The man's a genius.
RB: You've felt this way from his early writing?
FB: Yeah, yeah, Three Farmers On Their Way ToA Dance.
RB: The book based on an August Sander photograph?
FB: Yes, It's a marvelous book. Ward Just, Massachusetts'own, is one of the great, unsung heroes of American writing.
RB: Would he be a writer taken for granted becausehe is prolific?
FB: I don't know if he is taken for granted. I meanhe is not a movie star. I think he is really respected by writersand smart readers. And he happens to be a friend of mine. And wecorrespond. Those writers among so many writers. The man we mentionedearlier, John D'Agata, who has not only done a wonderful anthologyfor the wonderful house of Graywolf, The Next American Essaybut has written his own book of essays, called Halls of Famewhich I really admire. I read a whole lot of poets. I read an awfullot of poetry.
RB: Do you write poetry?
FB: I wish I could. I was the worst poet in America.I reached that level in 1963. I never knew where to end the right-handmargin of my poems. So I kept pushing them out. And then finallythe typewriter banged back to the left. I realized I was a prosewriter. Those are some of the powers that sustain me—someof the sources of energy.
RB: How does new information get to you?
FB: I go after it.
RB: Gerry Mulligan isn't new.
FB: He will be one of these days, I suppose—everythingold is new again. I just listen. I look around. I'm sure I'm noton the cutting edge. I love jazz, I love symphonic music. One ofthe things I'm proud of having created at Colgate and sustainedor twenty years with the help of a fabulous dean was a course calledLiving Writers. I would teach a book a week and then the authorwould come to class and be interviewed by my students. I would tryto stay ahead of things by reading all the new writers. I couldn'tbring them all there and there were certain writers I couldn't bringbecause of the size of their books. David Foster Wallace is one.I wanted to bring him but if I told the kids to buy that book [InfiniteJest is over a thousand pages] and have read by next TuesdayI'd get lynched. That kept me on top of what was new. And one ofmy pleasures for a while is going to be not reading the TimesBook Review every week, not looking in Publisher's Weekly,just relaxing about it. Let somebody discover some books for me.
RB: Do you go to conferences and other industrialgatherings?
FB: To do what, confer? No, I work alone. And I'mbetter at working alone.
RB: Writers, normally not the most gregarious andsocial of humans, seem to congregate with frequency especially inNew York.
FB: Well. Career is part of that and the confluenceof writing and teaching in the academy surely promotes conferenceattendance. As any department can prove to you, at a fairly goodplace any department will have a few really productive writers inwhatever discipline and the rest of the people occasionally writean article and go to a conference and maybe even give a paper. Theymake the mistake of thinking that attending a conference is beinga creative, productive scholar. And it's not. It's drinking andhaving sex and talking, talking, talking.
RB: That's creative.
FB: Momentarily creative but you get tired afterwards.
RB: We managed to mention Graywolf which is a smallcounterbalance to our lament about the perilous state of Americanpublishing…
FB: Graywolf has been in trouble and solicits helpfrom its foundation. They publish heavy duty stuff you have to thinkto read. And they don't look for best sellers. They look for smartbooks.
RB: That is the eternal condition of the publishersof smart books.
FB: Yeah, David Godine…
RB: Published you early on.
FB: Well, that was his mistake.But he got over it. He's a wonderful publisher and he loves publishing.He loves the physical aspect as well as good language. David's oneof the angels of the business.
RB: There's Copper Canyon in Seattle.
FB: A fantastic poetry press.
RB:Coffee House is in Minnesota also.
FB: Milkweed Editions in Minnesota.
RB: A hotbed of literary integrity.
FB: There are all these good things happening butit's very, very hard to survive when you are making these good thingshappen as a publisher. There is a only one mainstream large publishinghouse in all of the US that is not owned by a society of Germanaccountants like Bertelsmann or Putnam Penguin and that's my publisher,WW Norton. They are owned by the employees and they are gutsy andthey are independent and they are smart. I just love them as publishers.I wish there were more. Houghton Mifflin used to be independent.They have such good writers, Ward Just, Phillip Roth and Bob Stone.There's an amazing writer.
RB: Robert Stone has a new novel, Bay of Souls,coming this Spring.
RB: Might he be the Melville of this generationof American writers?
FB: I doubt that enough book reviewersknow what Melville wrote to say that.
FB: But I'm not bitter. No. I haven't heard thatbut I can see that analogy. He's a deep diver. I've heard him referredto as a contemporary Conrad. He is just very, very damned good.His little book of short stories is a mind bender [Bear andHis Daughter]. I taught that to undergraduates and some ofthem went into shock. The first story in that book "Miserer."There is nothing more powerful in our language. I want to be likeBob Stone when I grow up. I don't know how to dive as deep as hedoes.
RB: You're too happy.
FB: It's all Judy Busch's fault.(both laugh)
RB: Is it the natural order of things that whatwe deem as high quality to be eternally threatened? Or is the timewe are in?
FB: I don't know the answer. It's bad —ata time of tremendous shock mixed with a kind of psychic shock weall received from 9/11, the arts will flourish psychologically andbe threatened financially. Less money will be going to the arts.Similarly, at a time of war that is true. We may value those thingsless during those times. It's tough times for the arts. Librariesare closing…
RB: Libraries are going to start sellingbooks.
FB: Well, I'm just in shock. I just want them tosurvive. That's where a whole lot of us got creative as thinkers…inlibraries. Branch libraries can't stay open. I gave a talk at the42nd Street Library. It was the high point of my adult life, tostand up there in a hall and talk about libraries amongst otherthings. You think of James Baldwin going to the 135th Street branch—whatif it's closed when the next James Baldwin needs to go there?
RB: Well, you keep writing…
FB: That's what I do. That's how I justify myself.Seriously.
RB: Do you still ask yourself existential questions?
FB: When people say why do you write and I do tellthat to writing students because I want them to understand how seriouslyone can take it. I justify my place on the earth by writing everyday. If I haven't written I feel awful. If I haven't walked twoand a half miles, I don't feel so awful. I feel more rested.
RB: Perhaps the next time we talk, some of the LostQuestions will resurface—and I will have read all of yourbooks and become a Busch scholar.
FB: Don't bruise yourself. (both laugh)
RB: You have fiction published in Harper's.Have they ever asked you for a non-fiction piece?
FB: I'd love to be asked to write a non-fictionpiece or book. Maybe that will happen.
RB: Never been asked to write one of those biographicalessays like the Penguin series?
FB: I don't think [series editor] Jim Atlas thinksI'm smart enough.
RB: (laughs) Who would you like to write about besidesMelville or Dickens?
FB: Hemingway. I know a lot about him and I caredeeply about his work. It would have been very interesting to tryto write something useful and simple and unpolitical
FB: In terms of the gender wars I don't know ifthat's possible, frankly.
RB: I recently read an obituary on Leslie Fiedler and it mentioned that he had visited Hemingwayin Ketchum, Idaho not long before Hemingway bit the barrel of ashotgun. Fiedler made a lot of that one contact with Hemingway.
FB: I don't remember reading that, but I think Fiedlerhas been a really valuable critic—a really important criticof American literature. My reading of certain classical texts changedas much as after I read him as after DH Lawrence's marvelous littlebook on classic American literature. Two really interesting analogousthinkers.
RB: Do you already have a publication date for North,the next novel?
FB: No, but Norton was good enough to give me acontract for that book in advance. The manuscript is due at theend of March and it might be nice to publish it the following Fall.
RB: Who is your editor at Norton?
FB: Jill Bialosky. Jill is a poet and a novelist. She's a wonderful person, and she's so good as an editor. I'm very lucky to be edited by her.
RB: You've probably been at every publishing houseover your career?
FB: (Laughs). Yeah, I think so.
RB: Sounds to me like you have a home at Norton.
FB: I feel like I have a home. And they treat methat way. And that's good, boys from Brooklyn need a home.
RB: Well, good.
*Shift Magazine once published twentyor so black squares the size of the photographs that were intendedto be there. The photographer claimed that he had just come backfrom a trip and had dropped his film off and when he came back topick up his photographs the store was no longer there…Shiftran his captions to the intended pictures. I was trying to thinkof some (clever) way to replace the twenty minutes of conversationthat took place when the recorder stopped recording (no doubt, humanerror) While I had a sense of what I had asked Fred Busch, I justcouldn't ask him the same questions again. I have every intentionof talking to him again and perhaps I will get back to those questions,in some way.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing