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 topics.
"Every lie must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth and adopt truth’s aura." -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 English.
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 of idiom.
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 while.
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?
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 excellent poem.
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 be?
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.
RB: 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 and Princeton.
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 and strange.
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 Jim 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.
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 Seven Lies—
JL: There haven’t been any yet. It’s only been out a week.
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 in—
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 review it.
JL: Because it’s alive. They are interested. There is a public [for it].
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?
JL: It’s mind boggling. That was almost like an act of vengeance against poetry.
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 my choice.
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 that.
RB: No confidence in your powers.
JL: I feel as at sea pretty much as I did when I first wrote a story.
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 suppose.
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 or $14.
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.