London-born author and screenwriter James Lasdun has written two novels, The Horned Man and more recently, Seven Lies, and three story collections, including Besieged, the title story of which was the basis of a Bernard Bertolucci film. He has also published a number of books of poetry, including Woman Police Officer in Elevator and Landscape with Chainsaw. James lives in upstate New York with his family and, with many misgivings, feeds at the teat of academia, teaching at the New School and Princeton University.
Seven Lies is a hybrid narrative of a thriller and a middle-European,
early-20th-century meditation on desire and the darkness that may
hide in each of us. A young East German, Stefan Vogel, grows up
fantasizing a life in America, the golden land of his dreams. He
makes it to New York, marries the girl of those dreams, seemingly
having achieved his goals when, as is inevitable, things fall apart.
With two compact novels, James Lasdun has become a darling of East
Coast critics. Helen Vendler has opined on his poetry, “American
readers who want to see rejuvenated form in untroubled action, giving
brisk shape to contemporary and classical events, will find it in
Lasdun." His work has been lauded by James Wood, “When
we read him we know what language is for again.” Michael Dirda
has hailed Seven Lies “a masterpiece.” And
this by James
Buchan: “… his short second novel has a way of enlarging
the spirit and refreshing the mind far more comprehensively than
many books with twice its 200 pages.”
In this first conversation (and hopefully not last) with James
Lasdun that follows, he and I chat on the usual and some unusual
"Every lie must beget
seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth and adopt truth’s
-Martin Luther (the epigraph to Seven Lies)
Robert Birnbaum: Is English your first language?
James Lasdun: Yes it is.
RB: I asked because there were a couple of places where your diction
seemed unusual and at least not common to American English. There
is a point in the novel where the character goes to a play and what
is normally referred to as the “intermission” is referred
to as the “interval.” Is that a British usage?
JL: Yes, I’m English and live [here] in the States. But you
are right. I suppose the narrator would have learned a European
English, although it’s not entirely English English. He’s
been living in America so he would have picked up some American
English. Maybe it’s a bit of a hybrid of English and American
RB: I wasn’t thinking about accuracy—I hadn’t
thought if that was in character—
JL: —I tried to keep in character but there are always things
that you just don’t think about. There are always differences
RB: Yeah, I guess that’s why writers who publish in Australia
end up needing a third English editor.
JL: Right. It’s surprisingly—it bothers people if you
are using English in a different way than they have grown up using.
RB: Has there been a straight-ahead progression to writing novels?
It seems like from your biography that you started with poetry and
then wrote some short stories and the last two published works have
been novels. With some screenplays interwoven in.
JL: It looks more straightforward than it was. I started off wanting
to write novels. And I spent years while I was writing poetry and
writing short stories I was mainly, for ten years, trying to write
a novel. Or trying to write two novels. Neither of which I was able
to finish. And I had pretty much given up and got sidetracked into
film but still wrote poetry.
RB: Side tracked meaning that wasn’t your intention?
JL: No, that was a complete accident. A happy accident.
RB: Bertolucci chose your story—
JL: It was before that. The Bertolucci thing I didn’t have
much to do with. It was based on my story but I wasn’t involved
in writing the screenplay. But before that, I met a director at
a party and for the next five years I was working with him as a
screenwriter. We made two movies and then—but the effect of
that was to make it hard for me to do my own writing for quite a
RB: Screenwriting is not your own writing?
JL: Well, I do and I don’t. You are not writing something
that is a) totally yours or b) exists to be read. It’s something
that is part of the process of a film being made. It’s fascinating
and I enjoyed it very much, but I was beginning to feel by the end
of it a real desire to get back to my own work.
RB: Was there anything about it that was helpful in your writing?
JL: It has a huge impact on me. What I did when
I finished working in film, I started writing a novel and I found
that I was writing it in a quite different way. I was much less
tolerant of digression, of anything that slowed the speed down.
For me. Other people might find what I wrote still slow. But for
me it speeded up enormously, and that was from having worked in
film. And having had the experience of knowing that every page—well,
in film every page costs money. And so it’s a kind of peculiar
pressure to keep things economical, keep things tight. And I couldn’t
go back to writing dialogue in fiction the same way. Or writing
descriptive passages in quite the same way. And I was pleased with
it. I felt I had learned something that was useful to me.
RB: Do you look at writing hierarchically?
having had the experience of knowing that every page—well,
in film every page costs money. And so it’s a kind of
peculiar pressure to keep things economical, keep things tight.
And I couldn’t go back to writing dialogue in fiction
the same way.
JL: You mean one form is higher than another? No.
RB: Even though your aspiration has always been to write novels?
My impression is that everyone sees novels as the great accomplishment.
JL: I don’t know. There is something about writing a novel,
that calls upon such a breadth of experiences—it's such a
big commitment doing it. You enter a novel, you are not going to
be at the other end of it for at least several months and probably
several years. Start writing a poem, you have to be out of it by
the end of the afternoon if not the week. Although in my experience
it’s a pretty lengthy process even to do that. Writing a novel,
to me, was just a way of enabling me to test myself to the limit.
And to do things I was interested in doing. But I don’t think
it’s a higher form. In fact I think if anything writing a
really good poem, or a really good story, I think there is perhaps
greater artistry involved.
RB: On one level, it seems to be more difficult—or claimed
to be more difficult—to write a novel, but on the other hand
it seems to be harder to write a really good short story or really
JL: I think it is. I also think more people have a novel in them—a
novel or two, than have a poem or a short story. Short stories are
phenomenally hard to do—
RB: Novels are more forgiving?
JL: Yeah, they are. That’s exactly the word. You can go off
on digressions—it doesn’t have to be perfect, in a way.
A really good short story doesn’t have much tolerance for
imperfection. And a really good poem has none.
RB: I don’t know your poetry, but from your novels I wonder
about why you have a fascination with disconnected, deeply introspective,
unreliable [chuckles] narrator types?
JL: I guess I must. Although I don’t see myself writing another
one from that particular point of view. I think I have that persona
out of my system—
JL: But I like complicated moral predicaments for one thing. And
I like to look at—all novelists like to look at aspects of
human fallibility. And for me I find it easier to look at it in
the first person. To find the things that I don’t like about
society or politics—to find the sources of them in an individual
psyche and preferably in my own psyche. If I can understand myself,
I can say something about how these vices or flaws or whatever play
themselves out in a larger way. And so for me to write a story about
a hero who is perfect or almost perfect is just not interesting
and just not interesting for me to read about those kind of heroes
either. I don’t see them as being unreliable narrators although—
RB: Lawrence Miller [protagonist in The Horned Man] isn’t?
JL: Well put it this way: not in the sense that I think that term
is normally used. Which I am not entirely clear about anyway. To
me it conjures up a kind of tricksy relationship between author
and reader that is deliberately manipulative and deliberately playing
a game with your reader. And you have plotted out how you are going
to play that game and when to spring your little traps and all the
rest of it. It couldn’t be further from the way that I write
or from the kind of thing I like to read. It's more that they are
struggling to tell a difficult truth about themselves and that it’s
a complicated business and in the process of doing it certain things
that they might not have acknowledged or recognized come to the
fore of the narrative. It’s a little abstract, perhaps, to
look at it like that.
RB: When you mention the things you like to read, what would those
JL: I like all kinds of things. I do like Kafka and I have alluded
to Kafka in The Horned Man. And he is certainly writing
about people who are estranged from their own society and who see
themselves in relations, not being one of a simple continuum. They
are not usually representative types of a social world. They are
usually at odds with the particular worlds to the extent there is
even a social world in the first place. Kafka is so metaphysical
and metaphorical. I also love Tolstoy and the great realists. I
am very drawn to Russian fiction. I’m not exactly sure why.
But everyone in it from the most naturalistic writers like Chekov
to Gogol, I feel an affinity with their sensibility.
RB: What about American writers?
JL: Many Americans, yeah. I love Saul Bellow. And I like him as
a stylist, principally.
RB: I’m sure as a Nobel Prize author he has many admirers,
but I wonder if the British appreciate him more than Americans do?
JL: I think we do. It seems to be the case because whenever I mention
Saul Bellow in the States everyone kind of—
RB: Taken for granted?
JL: Or dismissed.
JL: Yeah, he is revered by many British writers. I am not quite
sure why that is. But so is Robert Lowell the poet. He has a much
higher reputation in Britain than he does here. Partly what it is—reading
him [Bellow] as a Brit, the language and the imagery, the vividness
and the power of the writing itself is what we are looking at. I
am not that interested in what he has to say about American society.
So for me the whole issue of whether he was right or wrong politically
and his various pronouncements is not why I read him. I read him
because of how he is able to describe a public bath in Chicago or
a train ride or just driving through a city. For me that kind of
line-by-line creation of the real worlds in an incredibly vivid
and vigorous language, especially to an English ear—we are
bored with our own cadences and so to hear that kind of very particular
mixture— someone told me they thought there were Yiddish cadences
in Chicago English. I don’t know if it’s right. There
is something very particular about it. So yeah, I like him and find
him a real tonic to read. I read some Bellow and it makes me want
to write. Because the world is made anew in him and in all of the
writers I admire. But there are plenty of other Americans I like.
Don DeLillo. Uh, many.
RB: Was this your aspiration to be a writer when you were growing
up in London?
JL: I would say from sixteen or seventeen years old I aspired to
be a writer. I didn’t do very much about it.
RB: Why was that?
JL: Partly the family I grew up in set a high store on artistic
merit and artistic achievement, like the family in Seven Lies. Although
in other respects they are nothing like that (I hope they won’t
take themselves as being portrayed in any way). And my father was
an architect and I probably grew up wanting to be an architect but
at a certain point I realized that words rather than visual things
were more my thing. I liked reading although I wasn’t a huge
reader as a kid. And for a long time I wanted to be a writer, but
I didn’t do anything about it—I didn’t start writing,
or start reading a lot more, it just seemed to me to be a desirable
way of being in the world. And then I started doing it when I was
at university. I started writing poetry, and I had a very good teacher,
a poet called Charles
Tomlinson, who was incredibly encouraging. And that was what
got me going and started making me think seriously about pursuing
it, and when I finished university I started doing literary things—book
reviewing and working in publishing and stuff like that.
And what brought you to the US?
JL: My first book of stories was published here by Ted
Solotaroff, who was an eminent editor at Harper and Row.
RB: He started New American Review.
JL: He edited it, I don’t know if he started it. He published
my book here and he was quite involved in the teaching and creative
writing scene and he asked me if I was interested in coming over
for a term to teach. Before that, I had never thought of going to
the States. It hadn’t seemed an option but this came up and
so I said, ”Yeah.” And he got me teaching jobs at Columbia
RB: Have you been west of Philadelphia, other than at Sundance?
JL: I’ve been to California. And a few other places, but
really it’s the East Coast that I know. But I'd like to get
to know this country.
RB: Are a you permanent resident? Are you intending to stay?
JL: This was seventeen years ago.
RB: [laughs] I guess so. Your wife?
JL: She’s American. I have dual nationality because they
relaxed the rules a few years ago. You could get an American passport
without giving up a British one and so I went and did it. And I
was sworn in just when drums were beating for war, it was very weird
RB: When you think of yourself, what are you?
JL: Acquiring more than one nationality denationalizes you. You
no longer—the issue is no longer one of any interest [laughs].
I’m happy about that because I never had strong feeling about
being deeply English. My family doesn’t go back anytime in
England —we’re Jews of two generations or something.
RB: Where is your family from, Eastern Europe?
JL: Yeah and Russia.
RB: And you wonder about your connection to Russian writers? It
could be as simple as being in the blood.
RB: In the two novels the people—it’s hard to call
them heroes, the protagonists—do you like them? Stefan Vogel
[protagonist of Seven Lies] and Lawrence Miller.
JL: Liking or not liking has never been an issue for me as a reader.
Or as a writer. For me it's sympathy, or are you engaged? Is this
a narrative journey that you are interested in taking? And yeah,
I am well aware they are not the most obviously likeable people.
RB: So what do you start with? A character, an incident, a plot?
JL: In both cases it was various things. Incidents
and some aspect of a plot or a story line. Once there was a kind
of critical mass, enough to get me going, I just took off. In both
cases it went nowhere near where I thought it was going to go. Particularly
The Horned Man. It began as a short story. I thought it
was a short story about a guy who teaches creative writing as I
did in a college and is suffering from writer’s block and
has an encounter that frees him up. And I was 20 pages into when
I thought, “This is boring. I’m not interested in reading
about a blocked writer and no one else is going to be.” I
was about to give it up when I changed what he did—it was
a small change but it had a huge impact on my ability to write it—changing
him from a teacher of writing to a teacher of gender studies. That
opened a great big psychic Pandora’s Box and all this strangeness
came out. To me. I enjoy reading that kind of thing. It’s
my own book, I shouldn’t say that but the fact that it’s
not sweet and by the end of it you’re not sure if you are
dealing with a serial killer psychopath is not a problem. In fact,
it makes it more interesting.
RB: And the book titles come when?
JL: I was about half way through that one when I had that title,
The Horned Man. And Seven Lies, I didn’t
come up with until sometime after I finished the first draft when
I had various other titles that nobody liked. And I had written
down in this notebook this line of Martin Luther’s and I thought
it would make a good title.
RB: I am assuming that The Horned Man is an allusion to
the unicorn that is mentioned. Was that always part of the story?
JL: No, not the original short story. When I realized I was opening
it up into a short novel I knew that it was going to go there, because
I had all this unicorn material from something else.
RB: The common understanding of the mythical unicorns is that they
were benign and gentle.
JL: Yeah, that is, but it's not the actual tradition. A long time
ago I read this anthropological or semi-literary anthropological
study of the unicorn myth [The Lore of the Unicorn] by
Odell Shepard, and it’s one of the most fascinating books
about myth I have ever read. So I knew this material.
RB: Would it have bothered you to have made that up? If you were
Crace, I would have thought there was a good chance you made
it up as plausible as it sounded.
JL: Right, it doesn’t in principle matter, but it would have
mattered in that particular instance because you were already dealing
with an unreal entity, a unicorn. So I wanted that aspect to be
grounded in—well, it’s not reality but an agreed-on
collection of traditions. But no, you write a novel and you enter
into a universe that’s imagined and it’s got to function
on that level. But that said, I like to keep things as real as I
possibly can. Just because you are going to be more lifelike, I
suppose. It sounds a bit lame.
RB: I find myself being critical of a failure to accept the fact
that once you open a novel, it says “novel” on the cover,
the expectation that it all ought to be factually correct. I also
understand how confusing it can be.
a really good story, I think there is perhaps greater artistry
JL: Particularly in genre fiction you come to
it with certain expectations, that the author is going to abide
by certain rules, and I guess although I don’t know that with
historical fiction, the expectation is that you make it as historically
accurate as much as you can. It wouldn’t bother me if the
novel were good.
RB: The appearance of accuracy, plausibility, seems to rile people.
Alan Furst makes a big thing about historical accuracy as he says,
“so much blood was shed over this stuff.”
JL: Yeah, I always wonder why people who have that way of approaching
things are not writing non-fiction? Why not write a history? Novelizing
reality, if that is what you are doing, is a bit of a betrayal of
realty anyway. If you are going to betray it anyway, you might as
well get the benefits of that betrayal.
RB: Well, you get to make up characters.
JL: I become pragmatic about it. As long as the story is powerful
enough to persuade the reader of the reality at the moment of reading
it and creates a story that has meanings that are consequential
in some way, then it's okay.
RB: You’re in the thick of American literary culture—that
is to say you have been previously published, one well-regarded
novel. I don’t know what the review attention has been for
JL: There haven’t been any yet. It’s only been out
RB: You have taught at some elite schools. And so do you have pronouncements
to make about [chuckles] American literary culture and the state
of fiction in America? Do you think about that?
RB: It seems to me that it’s healthy. Very healthy. There
are a lot of young writers around—I don’t know if I
have read the really young writers—
RB: What age is that?
JL: I’m trying to think of who was in my mind when I said
that—probably people like Franzen [who he’s read]who’s
not that young. Mary Gaitskill—I guess they are not. I haven’t
read that many people in their twenties, to be honest.
RB: But they are being published.
JL: They are getting published and the novel seems to be alive
RB: Contrary to VS
Naipul’s latest report.
JL: Yeah, I think it’s alive. It’s always a struggle
for publisher and booksellers and all the rest. There are always
cycles when people are suddenly very interested in fiction and then
everyone is bored stiff by the whole idea of it. But the novel itself
goes on. There are lively writers. Poetry is in real trouble in
this country. It has so completely taken over by the academy. There
is just no one outside it. There is no one—at least who I
am aware of—who is not teaching. It’s become very homogenized.
My favorite poets were American poets in the seventies There was
Lowell, Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman. And they were involved
with the academy to some extent, but the whole machine of creative
writing wasn’t up and running in this way. It seems like a
giant corporation now.
RB: Wasn’t it easier to exist as a poet in the sixties and
seventies, outside the academy?
JL: It wasn’t as easy to live inside the academy as a poet.
Now the academy employs tens of thousand of poets. And produces
them every year, however many thousands of MFA’s come out
of the mill. Unfortunately, it’s quite easy to get published
but it's very hard to get reviewed. There isn’t a matching
critical culture. The newspapers aren’t reviewing poetry.
The New York Times hardly reviews it. Other newspapers
hardly review it. There are these specialty papers. But everyone
is kind of scratching each other’s back because somehow—if
you contrast with England where fiction is in a less healthy state
than it is here. But poetry is in a more healthy state because no
one is comfortable. There aren’t people sitting around in
tenured jobs being polite to each other because they just don’t
want to rock the boat. Everyone is hungry and all the newspapers
JL: Because it’s alive. They are interested. There is a public
RB: There is that observation that in England as in the US, more
people write poetry than read poetry.
JL: That’s true but not in quite the same scale. It’s
still the case if you publish a book of poetry you are going to
get a handful of national newspaper reviews—at least three
or four. And they are going to be tough. They are not going to let
you get away with anything.
RB: I have this sense that in the past poets did a variety of things,
office managers, doctors, insurance agents—Now it does seem
that, as you say, that poets are comfortable, which does seem to
be against the grain of it.
JL: Right. Too much of it can be very much against the grain. I
am completely a beneficiary of this system. It’s enabled me
to live. I haven’t done it solidly for seventeen years, but
I have been able to raise a family here and all the rest of it.
So I am biting the hand that feeds me.
RB: You could make a living as a poet or as writer?
JL: As a poet and novelist, being supported by the academy with
teaching jobs. I don’t want to sound hypocritical. I am part
of this as much as anyone else. But I always tried to keep the teaching
to a minimum so I don’t have a full-time job or anything like
that. I haven’t tried to get one yet. The time may come when
I have to.
RB: Poetry magazine was endowed with a hundred-million-dollar
gift a few years ago. What could they possibly do with that money?
It’s mind boggling. That was almost like an act of vengeance
JL: If you really wanted to finally put in the last plug, give
it a hundred million dollars. It’s like poet inflation. I
see people pushing barrel loads of books around because they are
too easy to come by or something. On the other hand, when there
isn’t money for poetry, everyone is very quick to complain,
“We live in a culture that doesn’t support poetry.”
But you can’t say that in the US now.
RB: It’s almost unassailable that we live in a dumb mass
culture. On the other hand, there are arguable concerns about various
art forms disappearing or not flourishing. Is that connected? Would
we being getting dumber anyway? If you had more people reading,
would that really affect pop culture?
JL: [laughs] God knows [sighs]. It’s such a huge phenomenon,
mass culture. I can’t get enough of a perspective on it to
say anything with any confidence about it. I am not confident that
a) it is getting dumber and b) that it’s necessarily a bad
thing and c) and it hasn’t always been like this anyway. I’m
not sure. Across the world you are talking about so many hundreds
common cultures. I don’t do it. I don’t do mass culture.
We don’t have a TV. So I am not tuned into it very much. Occasionally
things come out of it that seem unbelievably wonderful.
RB: Such as?
JL: A lot of hip-hop and rap, I think is spectacularly good and
so much more interesting than official poetry. It’s on another
level altogether. Not all of it. And all of it comes with serious
misgivings and concerns about the larger effect of it. The power
of words has been unleashed which is enviable and admirable.
RB: I don’t know how we measure mass dumbness anyway. But
I do think mainstream pop culture is making more noise, and is more
distracting. But on the other hand, phenomena like Donald Trump
and Paris Hilton do point to a coarsening and dumbness.
JL: Yeah. There is a—dumbness in the past used to be accidental,
not intended. People were sorry if they were found to be dumb. At
least they put up a pretense. Now it’s consciously glorified.
That’s a new thing. That you go out of your way to make things
dumb as you can. A weird new twist in the culture. I don’t
feel that it’s here to stay forever.
RB: I’m content to live in a bubble of denial in which I
accept the scope of the literary culture as my real world even as
it is in reality marginal to most people lives. I am bothered by
knowing about Jessica Simpson and Angelina Jolie and—how do
I know anything about them? I don’t care about them. This
stuff is in the air and seems to permeate my consciousness. Not
RB: In any case, would you say you were in mid-career?
JL: I am such a slow producer I think I am nearer the beginning.
I hope so. To me mid-career suggests two things—either crisis
or you have really hit your stride. You have a big body of work
behind you. You feel confident in your powers. I don’t feel
RB: No confidence in your powers.
JL: I feel as at sea pretty much as I did when I first wrote a
RB: Even having written and published to good reception a number
of things doesn’t provide a modicum of relief from that?
JL: A little bit, yeah. It does. All it does is sort of build up
some evidence that you can get to the end of things that you have
started. I am often stricken with the thought I am never going to
get to the end of something.
RB: What are your ambitions?
JL: [longish pause] Well, it's hard to say. All of what I want
is to be able to write things that I think are worth writing. To
be inspired to keep being able to do it and get better at it. In
terms of a worldlier ambition—I think some of the things I
have done are good and I would like for them to be recognized, I
RB: How much is it the satisfaction of the doing of it? As opposed
to at the end of some period of time being able to hold up something
that a book or a screenplay, that’s something? Is it hard
to even distinguish that?
JL: The book that you hold up is the physical book but it’s
also a part of who you are. It becomes a part of—you accumulate
all that inside yourself and that’s really important.
RB: Are you glad you are a writer?
JL: I’m very glad. Although I don’t
find it easy. It’s not an easy life and it’s not an
easy thing to do.
RB: C’mon, you don’t have to lift heavy parcels or
run a drill press.
JL: I know. I know. But it’s—well, everything is hard.
You are very exposed in an incredibly intimate way as a writer of
fiction and poetry. You are really putting your ego, your soul,
everything on the line every time you publish anything. And you
develop all kinds of ways of handling the reactions whether they
are positive or negative. But the truth of the matter is, it’s
a very strange thing to do. And it has a huge impact.
RB: Do you read your reviews?
JL: I do. I do. I probably shouldn’t, but I do. Some people
claim they don’t; I am never sure I believe them.
RB: Right. They have someone read them to them. [laughs] So what’s
next for you? How long is this book touring process for you?
JL: A couple more weeks, I think. I have close
to a book of short stories.
RB: Will it be published?
JL: I haven’t suggested it yet, to anyone. But they have
all been individually published in magazines. I’d like to
publish it. But publishing a book of short stories is problematic
at the moment.
RB: I don’t know why, since I see so many of them? Supposedly
they don’t sell.
JL: They don’t. One or two a year get chosen. Every year
there is a prize collection of stories but if you are not that,
you sink without a trace. I’ve been there.
RB: That’s odd. Serious readers understand that this is where
the gold is to be found. I think there are enough serious readers
out there. Maybe story collections shouldn’t come out in cloth
editions—they should come out in trade paper editions at $12
JL: The economics of all publishing is a total mystery to me. I
don’t understand any of it. But I am not convinced that publishers
do. One has to presume that someone is thinking about it.
RB: Why? I don’t get why books are published in cloth, only
to be remaindered a short time later and then priced more cheaply,
thus competing with the paper edition.
JL: Well, god knows. I try not to dwell on that side of things.
You can get very gloomy. I have never heard a publisher or literary
agent make the comment, “Things are really good. Things are
really getting so much better.”
RB: That might just be a given in the commercial end of the creativity
business. In the really commercial world—pop music, or movies—they
always say things are great. So the short story collection—in
six months or so? Are you bound to Norton, a wonderful publisher?
JL: Yeah, they published my last few books and I am very happy
to be with them.
RB: Well good, I hope we meet again with your next publication.
JL: That would be nice.