Marcelle Clements

Marcelle ClementsMarcelle Clements was born in Paris in 1948 and came to New York ten years later. She attended Bard College and graduated with a degree in music. She returned to Paris in the early Seventies and wrote for Paris Metro. She has published a novel, Rock Me, a collection of essays, The Dog is Us: And Other Observations, and a non-fiction book, The Improvised Woman: Reinventing Single Life, and her latest novel, Midsummer. She has also
written extensively on a wide range of subjects for The New
York Times, Newsday, The Washington Post, Esquire, Elle, Ms., Rolling
Stone, Vanity Fair
and The Village Voice among others.
Marcelle Clements lives in New York and is busy thinking and writing.

Midsummer is set at a large estate on the Hudson River
rented out by a wealthy absentee landlord complete with a cook and
lovely landscape. The story brings together, for eight summer weeks,
an odd amalgam of house-mates from New York City: Susie, a theatrical
costume designer, her friend Kay, an introspective writer, artist
Dodge, an ex-lover of Susie's, Ron, a neurotic comedian, Elise,
a struggling artist and Susie's twenty-four-year-old son. Here's
Michael Cunningham praise, "Midsummer is a novel of
haunting beauty almost terrifyingly acute perceptions. By the time
I reached the book's subtle, devastating closing lines, I actually
gasped at Clements' command of comedy and pathos and her ability
to chart their intermingling."

Robert Birnbaum: My sense of you from my limited
research is that you are a woman of many parts. And now you have
written your second novel. Why did you write Midsummer?

Marcelle Clements: Midsummer is actually
a book that I started around 1990 and I published a non-fiction
book in that time. I assume that non-fiction is one of the other
parts that you are referring to, and it's a weird zig zaggy way
to proceed about things. But writing fiction is what I always wanted
to do. I got side tracked into journalism and since I started writing
professionally I have been sidetracked over and over again.

RB: [laughs]

MC: There are many things about journalism I love,
and it is certainly more lucrative. Actually, I began this book
immediately after I finished my first novel. And then in the middle,
for several years, I was rudely interrupted by life. This was somewhat
interesting, actually. Because when I took it up again a few years
ago, I had to deal with characters who were ten years younger than
I was—which was hard but as it turned out not impossible.
But, yes, I always wanted to be a novelist. I moved to New York
when I was ten and then moved back to Paris where I was born. And
I became a journalist there, by accident, working for something
called the Paris Metro, a bi-cultural publication.

RB: Meaning French and American?

MC: French and American. It was an expatriate
publication so it was about Paris but it was in English and published
by young Americans.

RB: Was this about the time of the May riots and
Danny the Red?

MC: Later, this was in the mid-seventies. Things
had calmed down but Paris was very animated. As I say I got into
it by accident, feeling I was slumming, but I became hooked almost
right away. Also I would never have become a journalist in New York
because it was too hard and too humiliating, as I discovered when
I came back here to the States a few years later. In Paris they
let me, on this little paper, do all sorts of things. So by the
time I left Paris it was too late…

RB: How did you get the living room, the space,
to be able to write this novel? Or finish it?

MC: It's really all I thought about, even during
the years that I stopped. I felt unfinished and guilty and unhappy
all the time because I hadn't finished it.

RB: When you talked to close friends and they
asked, "What are you doing?" what did you say?

MC: All my close friends knew that was the situation.
And, of course, I published a very large-in-size book in the middle
of it.

RB: The Impossible Woman?

MC: The impossible is good but it's The Improvised
Woman
. Some people said The Impoverished Woman.
I guess she is impossible and impoverished, The Improvised Woman,
which is a non-fiction book about single women. In a way, it treated
some of the same themes as Midsummer does. Anyway it was a mistake.
I was badly advised for one thing.

RB: To write the book?

MC: To do the non-fiction book. As I now know,
I hope not too late, that really, there is a [writer's] trajectory
and one needs to follow it.

RB: It's never too late.

MC: Right!

RB: [laughs] Right?

MC: I hope so.

RB: I know—people keep telling me to have
a nice day. I wasn't trying to be glib. There were a few things
you said that I wanted to stop for but it's your show…

MC: I'm always glad to detour.

RB: Do you feel better now?

That's really the best moment, when you're holding the book object
in your hands. Because, of course, the experience of publishing
a book is so, umm, shall we say, mixed.

MC: I am so relieved, yes.

RB: Not exactly what I asked you.

MC: Do I feel good? No, I am in a state of quest
for something else.

RB: Did you feel good at any moment?

MC: Yes.

RB: When you received the first copy of this book?

MC: Yes. That's really the best moment, when you're
holding the book object in your hands. Because, of course, the experience
of publishing a book is so, umm, shall we say, mixed.

RB: You mentioned you got bad advice. Will you
elaborate on that?

MC: To do the non-fiction book. I needed to support
myself— there was that detail, but in the end, even financially,
it was actually disastrous for me. I balked at writing The Improvised
Woman
so then I took a long time [writing it]. I spent the
advance and I had to do journalism to support the other book. It
was insane, and I would never do that again.

RB: It strikes me that you have this distinctly
non-American attitude about writing, more in the Grub Street tradition,
where you find any kind of writing honorable.

MC: I've had a lot of problems because of it.
It's much more unusual here. Although I think it may be becoming
more common. There is a tradition in Europe of writers wearing several
hats. It's much less so here. I think reviewers here are convinced
that they need to take you down if you enter into another genre,
and it's really too bad because everyone has several gardens in
their brain that they need to tend in different ways.

RB: I think it's odd considering the big impulse
in America to reinvent oneself. I guess you can change serially
but not simultaneously.

MC: You are often not allowed to do things that
make things not clear.

RB: [laughs]

MC: That's one problem. So if you are addicted
to complexity you have to find ways to manage that problem. Also,
there are different kinds of journalism. There was a kind of journalism
that was being practiced in the mid and late '70s which is now sometimes—this
is so pitiful—actually referred to as 'literary journalism.'
But it was journalism, these really long and subjective pieces with
interesting style experiments and I loved doing those. They have
disappeared, unfortunately. At least in magazines. A little of that
has survived in book form. These days the demarcation lines have
faded quite a bit. Within non-fiction there are many people doing
interesting things in book form. Sometimes it's denigratingly referred
to as new journalism. There is a certain kind of journalism that
used to be published in magazines and in some newspapers and that
has basically disappeared.

RB: Give me an example?

MC: Like the old Esquire.

RB: Before Chris Whittle and the Nashville gang.

MC: Yes, long before.

RB: Didn't Whittle bring Clay Felker to Esquire?
Which I think was a good thing.

MC: Yes, I did too. I have always been a big fan
of his. In fact, I was really lucky. Shortly after I came back to
New York someone introduced me to him and I picked up the phone
one day and it was Clay Felker and I remember I thought someone
was playing a joke on me. "Hi, this is Clay Felker and I'd
like you to write for me." At that point he was at the Daily
News
. I know this is a digression. He had some story ideas
for me. When I came in we started talking about other things, and
he saw that I was on Mars because I was recently arrived from Paris
and he saw that I didn't have all these tidy categories yet. I didn't
know any better than to tell him what I was thinking about and what
I had been seeing. So he had me write a piece about some friends
of mine and myself. We talked about maybe thirty five hundred words,
and I came in several months later with sixty five thousand words.

RB: [laughs]

MC: And he printed. He printed it as a series
in the Daily News. That was amazing.

RB: Gone are the days.

MC: Oh boy, are they ever.

RB: That won't happen again anytime soon. I thought
at some point we would get to the decline of civilization and journalism.

MC: And here we are.

RB: But the conversation could end depressingly
on that note. I have to remark I was looking at Romenesko's
web site
, and I saw one of the links was to Tina Brown London
Times
column talking about Bonnie Fuller's success. So besides
wondering who cares, I wondered why they were paying Brown money
to write this drivel. Okay. So let's talk about Midsummer.

MC: Yes.

RB: I am tempted to call your book a New York
book. How much would somebody who lives in a city west of Philadelphia
and east of LA understand the cultural references and the glibness
and the exchanges between the characters?

marcelle clementsMC:
I think what you say is true, but it also can be thought of as a
very French book translated into English. There is a lot of surface
language play, which can be, you can understand the references or
just watch the play. I don't think you need to understand all the
references. It's a surface and what's going on underneath the dialogue,
which I hope emanates from it very clearly, is more important than
the specifics. These are characters who obviously are much invested
in understanding what is going on in the culture. Even though that
inevitably leads them to see that they understand nothing.

RB: Maybe it would really be a New York book if
the summerhouse were in the Hamptons?

MC: Right. Yes, actually.

RB: But the fact that you isolated the characters
and they have to deal with each other makes it something different.

MC: Absolutely. This in a weird way—not
in a weird way but in a secret way—this book was part, for
me, of a series. Sometimes I have the fantasy of writing what would
be like the Balzac books or the Zola books, a series of interlocking
novels about New York and in fact there is a character from my first
novel who makes an appearance in this novel, though it's not indicated.
They are very much New Yorkers and part of what I was interested
in describing was New York and for that I had to take them out of
New York, which is so distracting. But it's true that they would
have to make and have those references and I hope people don't dislike
them because of the references. I know these days some people dislike
New York.

RB: These days?

MC: Maybe you're right.

RB: I am not suggesting it's a New York book like
The Devil Wears Prada is a New York book.

MC: I wouldn't feel comfortable writing about
rustic characters, I don't really understand them. Although, I am
interested. But I couldn't have more than one of two.

RB: Aren't writers supposed to be able to put
themselves into every kind of character? On the other hand feeling
comfortable with your material is important.

MC: I had things I felt compelled to say. It was
also partly the relationships and the characters that came to mind
that embodied them. Although they are very different. They are disparate
New York types. They are not all the same. Not all downtown hipsters.
There is one very WASPy…

RB: Kay? Isn't she a hipster by virtue of being
a writer?

MC: Exactly. She could pass, but in the end she
has some discomfort [long pause]. I could have said more about that.
I wasn't finished [with that].

RB: It seemed like there was a potential for this
story to go on and in the novel you actually set up that possibility
by suggesting that there would be some kind of post-Summer reunion
dinner.

MC: I forgot that.

RB: It's a character-driven story, so it does
seem that more can be said. Did I read correctly about you that
you started reading Balzac when you were ten?

MC: You know, because French children…

RB: No need to apologize.

MC: …read a lot of 19th century novels,
and I was addicted very early to Balzac and to Zola and others of
that ilk. Actually, I majored in music in school. I remember bringing
my composition teacher in college some songs and he said, "I
can't believe how French these sound." By then I was eighteen,
nineteen, eight or nine years after I had arrived in this country.
The chassis of this book feels to me more French. And, of course,
these days people dislike French people even more then they dislike
New Yorkers, so that doesn't necessarily help.

RB: We don't care about other people. Do we?

MC: We do. We don't necessarily act on our caring.

RB: Who are 'people'?

MC: You know, the horrifying introjects that one
imagines or haranguing critiquing. I would actually like people,
readers to like these characters. Not everyone does. I made some
of them, very self-indulgent or narcissistic or self-involved. Some
of my favorite people are like that.

RB: Was your sympathy and compassion extended
to all of them? Like the young au pair?

MC: I even liked her. I really liked her. That
was one of the big differences taking this book up again ten years
later because I was much more snide when I began it. I was much
more sarcastic. And I felt much more compassion toward all of them.
I felt sorry for them when I finished the novel in a way I don't
think I could have if I had finished within a year or two.

RB: Why did you feel sorry for them?

MC: For example there is one very obnoxious guy,
Ron. He's a comedian and is basically crazy and who is very aggressive
and abrasive. He was the kind of person who I would experience,
as very...I would be very unsettled when someone like that was around.
Now I feel bad for him. And in fact he was a worse guy in the first
draft then he is in the last draft. He locates some humanity within
himself. That's why I, in a way, try not to spend too much time
having regrets—for one thing then I would spend all my time
that way—for another there were advantages in stopping and
starting and it's a better book than it would have been than if
I had just gone straight through.

RB: I am beginning to understand the euphoric
moment and the settling in of reality for you. You really want to
write novels, and it's a really hard thing to do. So you are struggling
within yourself on how you will be able to write the next one.

MC: Yeah, exactly. Most of it is practical. If
there were no practical considerations, I would write three or fours
novels right now. It's not that I would want to drop the other stuff,
but that's what I would want to do. I think that I would get to
be a better novelist.

RB: Are we both assuming that this well-crafted
novel that you have written is not going to be a bestseller and
therefore a solution to all your problems?

MC: That would be a solution to all my problems.

RB: Why are we making that assumption?

MC: I've never had reason to make the opposite
assumption. I'm really happy that it was published. And I am delighted
that it's still alive three months after the publication. My first
novel came and went so fast that I understand what the stakes are
and how fast that happens. I am really happy that this one is faring
so much better. But a bestseller? I don't think it's a bestseller
kind of book. One of the reasons I write non-fiction is to take
the pressure off myself in terms of, so I don't have to have any
commercial considerations when I write fiction. Because that winds
up preventing me from writing at all. I just can't do it. It's not
that I think there's anything wrong with it. It's that I can't accommodate
both. What I love the most about writing fiction is the kind of
free fall and if I am worried about covering this and that it doesn't
really work for me. I guess there is that too.

RB: Are there places that you could still write
for other than the New York Times?

There is a tradition in Europe of writers wearing several hats.
It's much less so here. I think reviewers here are convinced
that they need to take you down if you enter into another
genre, and it's really too bad because everyone has several
gardens in their brain that they need to tend in different
ways.

MC: I have continued to write for the Arts &
Leisure section and I write about movies for them. I am working
on a proposal for a book which is half memoir and half reportage—one
of those books that really isn't in any category.

RB: Which is the way it should be.

MC: Yes, yes. I remember my former agent saying,
"You need to write a book that the bookstore owners will know
what shelf to put them on."

RB: High concept.

MC: Perversely I never seem to do that. I am thinking
of writing a book called 1958. That would really be about
the year I came to New York.

RB: Okay you can write for the Times.
Any place else?

MC: Maybe. Magazines, here and there.

RB: What are magazines that you think you could
write for? Where you won't be asked to profile the latest twenty-year-old
who allegedly made a movie maxing out his credit card or saving
the lunch money.

MC: I don't know yet, so we are going to have
to patch this in, three months from now [laughs].

RB: There is talk that the Guardian is
launching an American weekly magazine. That's an interesting signal
in cultural noisemaking.

MC: It does seem that to me too. And they have
given me good reviews in the past. If I have to I can write things…there
is honest work…there is a certain kind of dishonest work I
can't do, because it ruins me. It ruins my mind. But there is an
honest journalistic work that I can do even though it's not the
work I would want to be doing to make money. It doesn't screw you
up. It doesn't twist you into something than you can't…I do
wish things were different. The first draft of this book was finished
on June 8, 1994 and I stopped for a few years after that. My son
was born on June 11, 1994. It's not a coincidence I knew what I
was getting in to and what it would mean. And I am not sorry.

RB: I looked at your collection of essays, The
Dog is Us
, that was published in 1985. The first essay is about
what you called the "mutant elite." I looked to see if
it had been published previously. Had you tried to sell that piece
to someone? And did you think that anyone would publish it?

MC: I don't think so. Since then it has been in
college textbooks. That book had a very weird genesis. Half the
pieces were published, though in very different forms, in various
magazines. I was having so much trouble with editors—they
were giving me such a hard time because my writing seemed weird.
After the book was published I had a much easier time and some of
these pieces which were rejected, the very same editors who were
rejecting my work then asked me to do things for them. It's interesting
how much effect the authority of the printed page has. Especially
the book. Also, it used to happen to me that people would see things
published in another magazine and call me and then I would hand
in a piece that was at least of the same quality of what they had
seen and it looked weird to them. It looked wrong, somehow. So there
are a few like that, and there was all this stuff that I wanted
to write that I couldn't get published. So I wrote it for the book.

RB: And the piece on Nicaragua didn't appear in
a magazine. Did you sell parts of it anywhere?

MC: A shrunken-down version appeared in Rolling
Stone
. But there were so many arguments about it I took my
name off it.

RB: [laughs]

MC: I put the byline Odette Swann on it and amazingly
somebody must have read Proust in the copyediting department at
Rolling Stone because they changed it to Carol Swan.

RB: How or why did they screw up the piece?

MC: I heard someone say I had gotten this great
interview with this Nicaraguan woman Sandanista, but they didn't
want any of my ruminations. It was at a time there was a very different
kind of thinking on Central America.

RB: Rolling Stone was publishing William
Greider on Nicaragua.

MC: Exactly and he had a considerably more centrist
position than I did. Also, he was an older, more established figure
and someone they were comfortable with. Not long after this book
was published I went back to Nicaragua, where I wrote several pieces
for the Voice. Some were published and some were not. They
couldn't believe some of the things I reported on and brought back
to them. They were eventually front-page stories in the New
York Times
years later.

RB: Paul Berman was writing on Nicaragua for the
Voice in that period.

MC: Yes. I went back a few times around 1985.
I was just fascinated.

RB: I went there in 1989.

MC: Andrew Kopkind was the one who I first went
there with. He and I were very close friends. I was having dinner
with him one night and he said, "I'm going to Nicaragua tomorrow
morning." And he saw my expressions and said, "Do you
want to come along?" It was unbelievable. At that point he
was working at the Nation and Hamilton Fish, who is also
a friend, helped out and got me a visa. It was incredible. I was
on the plane the next day.

marcelle clementsRB:
I recently spoke to Joseph O’Connor, an Irish novelist, who
went to Nicaragua in 1985. We probably bored a lot of readers in
our discussion of this place that some snooty State Department type
referring to Managua Nicaragua said sounded like a typographical
error.

MC: There was such resistance.

RB: No one seemed to care or knew much about it.

MC: There was resistance from the right, from
conservatives and from the so-called Left, which by then was what
was left of the Left.

RB: The remaining Left.

MC: Yeah. In fact that was a key issue because
the Nation went much more to the center. But anyway, you
may not want to bore people again. I remember that I started just
keeping my mouth shut.

RB: I think we should assemble a group of people
who were there in the '80s and have someone fund a filmic reunion.

MC: Of course, I think that's a great idea.

RB: I guarantee you we are not alone.

MC: I don't think we are. But it was very hard
to convey that experience because there was such heavy propaganda
in the opposite direction. It was impossible to convey to people
how attractive the Nicaraguans were. Especially since all you would
see on the front page of the New York Times —I don't
even know how they got that many horrible shots of Daniel Ortega—who
was this incredibly shy person. And they would always get these
weird shots of him with his glasses askew, looking like a maniac.
It was really too bad.

RB: Is there some entity that would find it worthy
to do that story, and the story is that every once in a while American
government involves itself in a little country, makes a mess and
then leaves. And Nicaragua is an example of that. No one will admit
it about Cuba, but Cuba is an example of that.

MC: Clearly there is this huge resistance to facing
the history of American involvement in Central and South America
anyway. Because we have the pictures of Marines in 1901 with babies
on their bayonets. No one wants to see those.

RB: I am not willing to accept that no one wants
to know. I have put two conversations with Howard Zinn on this web site. Howard's People's History has
sold over a million copies and he is busier than ever. Here's a
historian with a different view of American history and my talks
with him continue to be some of the most accessed items on Identity
Theory
.

MC: I shouldn't say nobody. I think there are
people who want to know. It doesn't seem to be a critical…

RB: Groundswell?

MC: That's very funny. I think there is niche
comprehension and curiosity, but for the most part people either
don't want to know or they do want to know but they realize that
they can't necessarily do anything useful now with the information.
If they are going to effectuate any changes, it's not going to be
by clobbering the other side.

RB: That is dealt with in one of your essays about
people believing that they had no agency in their lives…

MC: I think that that is true although since I
wrote that essay, I think the other guys won. That essay was about
the two teams, the mutant elites, all positive, during the Reagan
years when everyone was supposed to be pulling themselves up by
their bootstraps, if they were depressed. And there were people
like me, fuck-ups who just sat on the side of the bed with their
heads in their hands, thinking, "Oh there's nothing I can do."
But that attitude became very much more peppy and uplifted and positive
and even people like me decided it was unhealthy to think of themselves
as fuck-ups. Instead we started talking about ways to empower ourselves.
I'm at the point where I refuse to say that's a bad thing. I would
like to join them as much as possible. As a journalist I found it
too difficult, there were too many obstacles to writing what I wanted.
Certainly on the subject of Nicaragua. I actually stopped doing
that kind of journalism when I went with Andrew Kopkind —who
was a wonderful journalist on the Left— to Africa and we were
going to travel across the whole continent. So we started in Senegal
and worked our way east and wen to South Africa and what I saw there,
debilitated me. I knew that I could not really write about what
I had seen in the way that I had experienced it. I sort of devolved
and cut the trip short and came back. Politically, what is the less
depressing way to put it? I think fiction, right now for someone
like me, is a better mode of persuasion than straightforward journalism.
But, anyway, just to finish up what I was saying before about the
Village Voice and Nicaragua, one of the pieces I brought
in was about someone I had met in Nicaragua, Orlando Tardencilla,
who had been notorious about ten years earlier. He was someone whom
the Americans were going to display at a press conference in which
he would accuse people on the left of having done all sorts of heinous
things. Then he had reneged. When I interviewed him, Tardencilla
told me that in the time he was jailed in El Salvador and tortured,
there were CIA people in the torture rooms, you know, helping out,
and giving instructions. I had an amazing interview with him and
I was hoping they would publish it even with disclaimers saying,
“We can’t guarantee, etc." But my editor at the
time just wouldn’t publish the piece. He said he didn’t
believe the guy and it wasn’t true. And also that the Americans
weren’t involved in the Salvadorian elections and so on. Of
course, a few years later all of this was on the front page of the
Times. It was clearly true and all those people over there
knew it was true and you were there and had experienced the reality
and you could make the judgement as a journalist, the kind of judgement
you make all the time anywhere. That's why political organization
is the way to go.

RB: There was Ray Bonner at the Times
being thwarted about the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. The
State Department denied that the El Salvadoran army had massacred
this village. Of course fifteen years later the New Yorker
publishes confirmation of it and devotes a whole issue to it.

MC: Yes. Yes.

RB: That was a moment in which I though Tina Brown
was not a child of the devil.

Clearly there is this huge resistance to facing the history of American
involvement in Central and South America anyway. Because we
have the pictures of Marines in 1901 with babies on their
bayonets. No one wants to see those.

MC: I don't think she was a child of the devil.
I think the devil moved in before Tina Brown came to New York.

RB: [laughs]

MC: On the other hand from a personal point of
view, that was a fascinating education in how these things work.
I just did an interview for O magazine with Lani Ganier,
who is really interesting. I had heard her talk at Bard College
where she gave the commencement address, and she talked about failure
as what she calls "the failure theory of success." It's
not one of these perky superficial things. It's some profound thinking
that she has spent on the subject of how failure can focus you,
what it can teach you and how you can move from there to connect
with bigger issues to have a better understanding of what is going
on. I really think that's something I could support.

RB: Oprah is the target of a lot of poking and
snidery, but at the heart of it there is something that is better
for her works than not.

MC: Yes.

RB: This despite the fact that there is a kind
of cultishness and self-help blather. [pause] What are the things
that you think are important today? What's important for you to
think about?

MC: I'm less and less content oriented and more
and more interested in how people feel in their own skin and their
problems synching up with other human beings. The issues come and
go and for me content has acquired this impenetrability. I guess
that is what I have really been saying.

RB: The issues have become litmus tests: where
are you on abortion? Where are you on welfare? And so on. And if
we don't agree on these issues than we can't be friends or get along,
whether or not one has thought out their beliefs.

MC: That's not what I meant but that's interesting.
I think that's also true. Many of us are willing to have a bigger
set of bedfellows than we used to have. Let’s just say that
American politics have just become so difficult and painful—difficult
to address in book form by me directly because I had my formative
years at a time and place where politics was everything. I actually
still feel politics is everything and that if I talk about people's
self-consciousness and their relationship to one another I am always
talking about politics as well. Um, I don't know. What do you think?

RB: As you were saying that I was thinking about
getting to a place in one's life where you start checking off what
you find irrelevant and not personally worth paying attention to—
where you are not sure what is important but pretty clear on what
isn't.

MC: Well, of course and that list grows bigger
and bigger. It becomes a frightening dimension. This is, by the
way, one advantage of having all these different parts. For example,
the non-fiction book I wrote in the middle of writing this novel,
a book about women, in particular it was about single women. I feel
as if I got rid of a lot of the obsessive interest I had in gender
matters. I find myself less interested in continuing to explore
gender analysis. What I need to work with is a more ambiguous yet
nuanced grid than that. I am also interested in what sensations
feel fresh, what is pleasurable? I teach a course in Proust every
Fall to freshman honors students at New York University. It's a
seminar. We read all of Proust in one semester. Which is incredible.
It's ridiculous and really exhilarating. But the biggest problem
I have is they are all so achievement oriented. They do the work.
They do the reading. They do their papers and the writing. But the
hardest thing is to get them to read for pleasure. And to connect
emotionally with what they read. Luckily, by midterm time, they
are won over. Although I suspect it's the Stockholm syndrome.

RB: [laughs]

MC: I'm not sure what it is, but I think it's
the magic in the Proust works that wins them over but I have to
really work at it. That's something that seems to be drifting away.
That interests me still, when I read Proust, which for me now is
so infinitely pleasurable. I used to be bored in parts, and now
I find almost every sentence blissful. You do go a little crazy,
but what really interests me in Proust and in writing, is what is
it that feels alive.

RB: I thought you were going somewhere else with
that. You started off by talking about fresh things and ideas. I
wanted to get an idea of how much contact you have with new ideas
and trends. How much of a generational barrier do you feel there
is?

MC: I have a smattering of people in various age
groups. My connection with my students, many of who stay in contact
with me—after you have read Proust with someone you fall into
a weird kinship—I see many things from their point of view.
Also, I have nine-year-old son. To go back to a question you asked
before. This is a thing I would love to write about, and I was talking
about it with my agent and we agreed I should put it on a list and
forget it. I would like to write about the seeming impenetrability
of this youth culture and what it means to someone my age—I'm
fifty-five now. What is my responsibility to myself in terms of
trying to understand some of it? I like quite a lot of it. I like
more of it than most of my peers. Especially the music, I don't
like teen movies very much. That's the point. I feel like should
be able to pick and choose.

RB: I was trying to figure out what the sound
was in the echo chamber when Seamus Heaney anointed Eminem. I guess
any pronouncements by Heaney are news but I didn't think it was
such a big deal [Does it rival Bob Dylan's pronouncement that Smokey
Robinson was one of America's great poets?]. Though I guess now
the AARP can arrange for group discounts on Eminem's CDs.

clementsMC:
I think people don't understand the context. And he [Eminem] makes
a cheap target for conservative analysts. Everybody just kind of
buys it. Which is too bad because that keeps things boring and static.

RB: I wonder how much effort it requires to refuse
to accept the dominance of youth culture and the impenetrability
of it.

MC: My experience with my students is that they
are eager to invite older people in.

RB: Demographics are about marketing. On an intellectual
or analytical level there is no reason to surrender to the demographic
myths, but the marketplace will keep reminding us.

MC: I think, and rightfully so, that there are
a lot of people my age who are resentful that they don't get more
of what they need culturally because everything these days seems
to be about marketing, and I agree that that's too bad. It would
be a better marketplace and, I feel, a more lucrative one if this
huge cohort that's so often ignored were…I think it's going
to be interesting to see if some new paradigm will come up. But
so far I still feel that people now in their 40s and 50s and 60s
still have an interesting perspective.

RB: Sure. It remains to be seen if they have any
power.

MC: They have more buying power than they are
being given credit for.

RB: A last question. A dog meets an unfortunate
fate in the book…

MC: Totally made up. I'll tell you something.
That's the point at which—so a dog dies early in the book.
But what I added this time. I was cruel to the dog. I was cruel
to the characters, as I think one has an obligation to be. Something
very cruel happens around the dog's death, and that's when I knew
that this was going to be an interesting novel, actually. I thought,
"Well, these people are not just chattering and there is something
bigger at stake that does have to do with cruelty and compassion
and whether it's really possible to make connections and live like
a human being in the world. Or not. Even if you think you are, just
outside of earshot there is some awful…”

RB: Things happening.

MC: Yes. Right.

RB: Thank you.

MC: Well, thank you. This was really fun, actually.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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