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