Mark Winegardner, who grew up in Bryan, Ohio, attended Miami University and received a MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University. He has taught at a number of schools and is now the director of the creative writing program at Florida State University. He has written Prophet of the Sandlots, Elvis Presley Boulevard and two novels, The Vera Cruz Blues and Crooked River Burning. His work has appeared in GQ, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, DoubleTake, The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. His newest work is a collection of short stories, entitled That's True of Everybody. Mark Winegardner lives in Tallahassee, Florida with his family and is probably working on his next novel.
Robert Birnbaum: Would you be teaching writing if you didn't have to?
Mark Winegardner: Oh yeah. Definitely. I have an awful lot of writer friends who recently quit teaching. I just don't understand it in some ways, or rather I personally can't relate to it. I like teaching. To me they are so inextricably bound. Teaching and writing. There is nothing that gives me more pleasure to do—no professional thing, than being in the classroom. I find writing miserable. It's very difficult. I'm of the camp, I don't like writing, I like having written. I take great pleasure in writing well. I'm ambitious about it. I like to be entertaining. Everything about being a writer interests me and I find it worthwhile after the fact. But the act of writing can be pretty punishing and humbling. Teaching is not like that. It's really fun. It seems worthwhile without being painful. There are things about being in academia that are painful.
RB: Which, I expect, is the source of the three stories in this collection.
MW: Yeah, the three "Tales of Academic Lunacy." Very little of those stories are based on things that happened to me, but a lot of it is indirect. I wrote one story set in academia and it was loosely based on a famous poet I had known. What happened with the story is the kind of thing that never happens with stories. Basically, it went right out of my computer printer and sold the first place my agent sent it. That was a pleasant experience and among the most money I had ever made for a short story. Later, I wrote a different kind of story that was interrelated to that story, "The Visiting Poet"—that had some overlapping characters. It was originally called "The Untenured Lecturer." I felt like I left a little on the table, but that story was loosely based on a writer I had known who posited the interesting question, What if you had every impulse of a genius but none of the talent? He had great work habits. Ordinarily, I think for any writer I'd bet on the person who is 90% work habit and 10% talent over the person who is 90% talent and 10% persistence, but every once and a while you meet exceptions. They are very rare. There are probably 14 people like that in all of America. But I knew this guy who was one of them. At the same, with that story, I had been reading a lot of mythology and a lot of myths, tales and legends because I was trying to teach myself things about stories that were older than literature. When you are an English major and an English professor you think that stories started when fiction started. You don't really think that, but you behave that way. I realized that I was appallingly ignorant about that. I was just trying to educate myself on that. With the story, "The Untenured Lecturer," I was trying to tell a contemporary fable. So there was this overlapping character in those stories. And when I got the contract to do a collection of stories, I thought these two stories just don't seem like any of the other stories I have written. It's kind of a truism in publishing that people don't want to see stories set in academia and yet both stories were published almost immediately. I had no trouble getting them published. If you look at a lot of the books published in the last few years, just think how many magnificent books have been set there—The Human Stain is probably the greatest American novel in the last 30 years and it's set in academia.
MW: You don't think so? I sure do.
RB: Hold on now. There is a sidebar here. I have never read any Philip Roth. Every time I admit that I haven't read someone I get e-mails admonishing me, "You haven't read so-and-so?" (So, whoever intends on e-mailing me, be prepared for me to respond with a long list of who I have read…and an even longer list of whom else I haven't read.)
MW: I think Roth—this is a tangent in answering the question—first of all there has never been a career like that. Where someone has been sexy and important and a young writer in their 20s and then goes on to write his best work after the age of 60—as far as I can tell in world literature there has never been anything remotely like that. Not even kind of like it. He's gone from a good important writer to one of the 2 or 3 most important writers who ever lived, just in the last 5 to 10 years.
RB: I guess I should ask who the other 2 are?
MW: Faulkner and Whitman, I suppose. There would be no serious debate that he is the greatest living American fiction writer. I'm a big Joyce Carol Oates and Updike fan but c'mon—I like all those writers a lot but I don't think you can make the argument with a straight face that Roth isn't more important and a better writer than any of them.
RB: Why is it important to have this kind of beauty contest?
MW: It probably isn't. That's a really good point. I don't think it's important. Especially among the really prolific writers—boy, I'm going from a tangent to a tangent to a tangent.
RB: I'd like to think I am good at continuity, but I can't remember how we got here.
MW: Stories set in academia. There is a kind of laziness in contemporary culture. People certainly want the cultural arbiters to tell them what to read. There is a vaguely contradictory ethic among readers that writers who are really prolific you don't have to read at all. You can't possibly read all of Joyce Carol Oates, so you don't have to read anything. In point of fact, she is your worst nightmare. Almost every one of her books is worth reading.
RB: Okay, I'll fess up. I haven't read John Updike either.
MW: Same thing. The must-reads are the collections of stories. They are absolutely indispensable books. Roth's swath of brilliance over the last decade has in some ways—though his books have done well—escaped notice…there isn't a widespread understanding of how important that work is. You end up doing that dumb-ass beauty contest stuff in order just to get noticed. "Blah, blah, blah, Philip Roth is a good writer." No, no, no. Stop right there! Roth is for the ages. There is a fundamental cultural illiteracy to not know books that brilliant.
RB: Houghton-Mifflin for almost 90 years has been putting out Best American Short Stories. There is no question that there are great stories in those annual collections but calling them 'Best' just doesn't seem right.
MW: It's just another cultural arbiter. It is a way of sifting through—Katrina Kennison and her predecessors, certainly with Shannon Ravanel, you had people who worked their ass off reading more new stories than anybody alive. And doing a really good job of culling down to a 120 interesting stories. No one who wasn't paid to do that job could ever find the time to do that job. I value that. It's true that you just have one person's take on this. She reads probably 10,000 to 20,000 stories a year and picks 120 to pass on. Who is Katrina Kennison? Why does one person get to do this? Well, 'cuz, they do. Look. It's just a Whitman sampler. One of the interesting things that happened when they did Best American Stories of the Century was—how many terrific stories that were published in that time?—you couldn't be in the centennial book unless you had been in that year. There were many brilliant stories that didn't make it in Best American that particular year. So they couldn't be in Best American Stories of the Century. So, it's obviously imperfect. I don't think people take it all that seriously. There's lots of writers who've gotten in once who have never been heard from again. And there's lots of writers who have never been in there who…It's not that important, again, except that none of us have all the time in the world. And if you are looking casually without a high degree of seriousness at several cultural arbiters it's not the same thing as, "Oprah told me to read this, therefore I must wander zombie-like into the bookstore and read because she said so."
RB: I am concerned about what value we assign the word 'best.'
MW: I'm with you on that.
RB: First H-M had the Best Stories, then there was Best Essays. Then Best Sports Writing and Mystery Stories. Now there is Best Science Writing, Travel Writing, Recipes. This year there is a Best Non Essential Reading guest-edited by none other than Dave Eggers.
MW: I fear that they might kill the goose that lay the golden egg. That [Best Stories] was a dignity item for years and years and then it became hugely commercial. So much so that there was big pressure on O Henry to imitate them in certain ways. Worrying about the commerce of this—Best American has picked pop fiction writers to edit it—who the guest editor is has a huge impact on sales. The Garrison Keillor edition was one of the best selling years, even though it was one of the weaker selections. Is Garrison Keillor a fiction writer? Who knew? Sue Miller? Barbara Kingsolver?
RB: With Nick Tosches in mind, maybe they ought to let John McEnroe do it.
MW: Just let Monica Lewinsky do it. She sold more books than I ever have. Why not her? The John Edgar Wideman one was famously the worst-selling edition since they went to guest editors. There was a perception for years that the best story writer who has never done it should be asked. Now the perception is that it has to be someone who has some commercial umph. So they have had people edit the Best American Short Stories who have never published a book of short stories. That seems kind of bizarre. Meanwhile, writers like Charles Baxter and Richard Bausch have never been asked, some of our best story writers.
RB: Do you think if Charles Baxter [he teaches at the University of Michigan] taught on the east coast he would be recognized as a great American writer?
MW: That's a really good question. He is a great American writer. And he is as I am—for better or for worse, a hopelessly Midwestern sensibility.
RB: (laughs) What does that mean? Is there a Midwestern school of writing?
MW: Well, yeah that Midwestern school of writing is the main stage. Everything else is pretty peripheral. Midwesterners are so full of self-loathing that they can't bring themselves to say so. Think about it. We've had 9 American Nobel laureates. 5 of the 9 from the Midwest. No other region has produced more than 1. If you believe as Midwesterner Ernest Hemingway once said, "All of American fiction comes from a book by Mark Twain called Huckelberry Finn."—by a Midwesterner, Missourian Mark Twain. The difference for Midwesterners is that they, until recent years, have typically either been vicious towards the Midwest as Sinclair Lewis was or went to great lengths to not be seen as Midwesterners. [T.S.] Eliot being the best example. He became British, for Christ's sake. Tennessee Williams, raised in St. Louis, became Southern. Adopted a Southern state as his name. Of course, he was just Tom. And then you have writers who have never really abandoned the Midwest, who are deeply and ferociously Midwestern writers and for whatever reason and we don't seem to see this as a category—which it is, it's the main stage of American literature. We don't even talk about them as Midwestern writers. Toni Morrison—almost her entire body of work set in the Midwest. She's a deeply Midwestern writer. Tim O'Brien, a deeply Midwestern writer. Everything he's ever written has been set in the Midwest or forged in the Midwest, including the Vietnam books. He'd be the first to cop to it. If you said, "Tim, you're a Midwestern writer. You're in that tradition." He'd say, "Yeah, of course I am." Duh. But no one talks about him that way. Tim and Charley [Baxter] were at MacAlester College at the same time. Probably, because of some New York driven need to pigeon-hole writers, Tim is a Vietnam writer and Charley is a Midwestern writer. And they're not. They are just two great American writers, completely indispensable.
RB: On the other hand, there seems to be a ghettoization that takes place for so-called regional writing. As always been the case for Southerners.
MW: Right. There are two sorts of readers who really look out for their own in literary fiction. That's Southerners and black women. If you are a Southerner and you write a good book your people will find you. There is a feeling we have to support our own. Black women are the best of all. It's hard to name many black female fiction writers who are not millionaires. That's great. That's people culturally watching out for their own. The South—living there, they have a conquered-nation sensibility about their culture. So they don't have a Midwest dumb-ass attitude toward New York, "Oh do you like us? Do you take us seriously?" The South knows that New York won't take them seriously, and they have a healthy fuck-you attitude about it. As a result there are Institutes of Southern Culture and Best New Stories from The South. You could definitely produce a better book every year of best new stories from the Midwest that would be a better book, year in and year out, than Best New Stories from the South. No one would buy it. They'd giggle about.
MW: All it would be would be good work. "Who would be in that?" "Geez, I don't know, a preponderance of our best writers." You go to a lot of independent bookstores in the South and fiction will be shelved in Southern Writers and Other Fiction. The Southern Writers section is better lit. There's comfortable seating there. There's autographed pictures of Southern writers on the wall. You go into Other Fiction and it's cold and poorly lit and there's tumbleweeds going down the aisles, In the Midwest, if you had [a section for] Midwestern Writers it'd just be full of a bunch of vanity press books. Even your mom wouldn't go there to buy your book. I'll guarantee you the booksellers wouldn't shelve Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tim O'Brien and Charles Baxter and Toni Morrison and Saul Bellow there.
RB: So are you trying to pass yourself off as a Southern writer these days?
MW: I am trying to become a counterfeit Southern writer. My colleague Robert Olen Butler—from Granite City, Illinois—has appeared in Best New Stories from The South more than anyone in the history of that August series…
RB: You need a middle name.
MW: Maybe so.
RB: Mark Ed, Mark Joe.
MW: Even Mark David, although that makes me sound like an assassin. I live there. There are 2 stories in That's True of Everyone that are set in the South. They are kind of counterfeit Southern stories.
RB: Why are they counterfeit?
MW: One of them was based on something that happened elsewhere that I thought would work better set in the South. I'm just finding my way as a Southern writer. Tommy Franklin [Poachers] who is a friend of mine and the perfect example of a really good writer who was immediately held up as an example by the Southern literary establishment as an important writer. It's really helped him out. He told me, "You have to live in the South for at least 10 years and set at least 2 books there before anyone will take you seriously as a Southern writer." Sooner or later they will let me in. I thought I would start by setting a couple of stories there and see how that goes. Butler has probably set only 4 or 5 books there, out of 10 or 15. His big book is set in Louisiana—Good Scent from A Strange Mountain—won the Pulitzer in '93. That's the book his reputation rests on. He's had the good fortunes of having—it doesn't happen to every writer—where his reputation rests on his best book. Bob has written several other really good books but that book is just completely brilliant.
RB: Let's see if we can circle this digression back.
MW: I'm sorry about that.
RB: We were talking about academic novels or stories set in academia.
MW: That's what started me on Roth and this hopeless digression. The Paul Auster novel is set in academia and a lot of first rate work is set there. I'm like anyone else. I look suspiciously at work that is set there. But it is also true that people that read literary fiction are going to disproportionately be people who were fond of their college years or who have some tangential relationship to writers or English departments. So it's not exactly a limiting thing for your audience. Richard Russo's Straight Man is one of the funniest books I ever read.
RB: Michael Chabon's The Wonder Boys…
MW: There have been books that have been big commercial books that have obviously transcended that. Why hospitals and police departments for TV shows? Some things just lend themselves to the genre. Academia is the ultimate contemporary bureaucracy. It's worse than government. Are hospital stories necessarily justified by the countless hours of episodic TV that's been devoted to it? No, but just as a milieu lends itself to TV shows. Academia does that to literary fiction. That said, with "Keegan's Load" I felt that if I was going to include the 2 stories, "The Visiting Poet" and the "The Untenured Lecturerer," which when it was published in TriQuarterly was published as "That's True of Everyone." Two of them that weren't like anything else in the book seemed weird to me. So I thought I would write one more academic story just to make it seem like this a cycle of stories and they can be a little bit apart from everything else in the book. There is a trio of them and it looks like I planned it that way—which, of course I didn't. But who cares what I planned just as long as it works in the book. The other stories just happened by accident, I had ideas that grew into stories. I very consciously wanted to write a story about academia and in doing so I thought, "I'm never going to do this again. I'm never going to write a story in academia. So this is going to be my big kiss off to it. I'm not going to pull my punches. The stories I have about working there have to go in this story because I'm not coming back here. I'm scorching the earth and I'm moving on." So that story is my attempt to do that.
RB: This is all started because I asked you about the joys of teaching. You started out as a journalist…
MW: Not really. I went to college thinking I wanted to be a journalist. Before I graduated from college I knew I didn't want to be a journalist.
RB: Your first three books were non-fiction.
MW: I never thought of them as journalism. From the time got really serious about writing—my junior year in college, I set out to be a fiction writer. The non-fiction [books] were just things that fell in my lap. Fiction was just harder. All along I was writing fiction. I guess this true of many people when they are young. I had the experience of the person I was on paper, wasn't me. My resume was a big fat lie. So I looked like a non-fiction writer who turned into a fiction writer. I was really a fiction writer who had freaky good luck with non-fiction though I was never a non-fiction writer. And I certainly wasn't a journalist. I'm good at watching stuff but I'm a terrible reporter. I'm not good at interviewing people. If I can hang out with someone and let 'em talk or watch 'em do what they do—then that works out fine for me. If I have to do what you are doing, then I'm pretty bad at it.
RB: And The Vera Cruz Blues was a way of easing into fiction?
MW: That's what it looks like if you read the books in order but that's just not how it was. I was writing short stories all along. The Vera Cruz Blues was a kiss off to ever writing about baseball. I was really sensitive about being pigeon-holed as a "baseball writer." I thought, "Alright, I'm going to do this but then I am not coming back here." Most baseball books are terrible. I'm a fiction writer. I really work hard to try to write good books that will last decades. The idea that anyone reads a book for its subject is very alien to me. I read a book because I think it might be a good book. I know most people don't act this way. But I was never interested in a single thing Jane Austen wrote about. If you summarize the plots of those books they sound like the most ridiculous romance novels. Which is, of course, from where the ridiculously stupid romance novels stole their plots. Within the covers of those books they are completely brilliant. I forget I don't give a damn about the plot centering on the heroine getting married to the dashing man. Why? Cuz they're funny as hell. Because Jane Austen is a great writer. I want to read about things I don't know. I don't have that feeling, "Oh This is something I know a lot about let me read more about it."
RB: I agree with you with the exception of baseball. I want to read good baseball books because I don't like those intellectually spawned books, faux intellectual ruminations like George Wills' about the sport.
MW: Yeah, I hate those books, baseball as metaphor. My frustration with that was a big part of what The Vera Cruz Blues was about. I felt like so few baseball books get the baseball part right. The mythology horse shit doesn't interest me. Mythology interests me. Mythology horse shit doesn't. Being honest about what it's really like to be a baseball player. There are hardly any books that try to do that. I was really trying to do that. Paradoxically, the book is just steeped in myth and legend. All the Danny Guardello chapters in The Vera Cruz Blues conform absolutely precisely with the stages in the hero's quest from Joseph Campbell's Hero of A Thousand Faces. But that's real mythology, that's not baseball as metaphor. For me baseball was fiercely literal in that book and other things were metaphor.
RB: How did you decide what stories were going to be in this collection?
MW: It was really—(long pause) fun might even be the right word. It was an instructive experience, a fun and instructive experience. Going back over the stories that I had published, I decided to read everything that had a ghost of a chance of being included. Which was going to mean that I was going to leave out 10 or 12 stories. What happened was inevitable, there were 3 or 4 stories that before I started rereading them I was certain would be included that I chose not to and 3 or 4 that I was certain that I would not include that I choose to. In a couple of those cases, they were really pretty good except for a couple of things that I screwed up horribly and I just fixed them. They had been published but whatever—I still have the prerogative—"Wait, wait, this ending is horrible, I know how to fix that." It was fun to figure out what I was about as a writer. It was a perfect book for me to do to look forward as a writer.
RB: Like a mid-career retrospective for a visual artist.
MW: There are a couple of stories in there that are strong stories that if I waited much longer to have a collection I wouldn't have included just because they were strong but alien. I needed to have a collection come out so that I could continue to develop as a story-writer, too. One of the things that's great about a writer like Lorrie Moore, each of her collections are really strong books. The first one is a young writer's. It was her MFA thesis, extremely adept. A lot of lesser writers with the success she had with that book would have stayed in that vein. What's so impressive about her is that, really, each of those collections has a very distinct feel about it. She's done this and very consciously moves on to something else. Aside from the fact that she is a really terrific writer, her determination to push herself is as responsible as anything else for a writer only 5 books into it to have the kind of stature she has. I'm impressed with that. That's what you are supposed to do. It's been nice to have the opportunity to take stock and also it represents my best work to this time and it's time to put closure on it so I can move on to something else. It's a coherent book as a result. There are collections that are just, "Hey, here are some stories."
RB: Who reads short stories?
MW: In my world—forget me as a college professor and a writer—just the people I run into, I am disproportionately around people who are just as likely to read a book of stories as a novel. I realize that the culture at large doesn't behave that way. Serious readers—people who are really, really passionate about American fiction or fiction period are disproportionately story readers. The people who are there for you for your story collections are your real readers. The people who say, "Aw, that's just a book of stories, I'll read his next novel." Those are the dilettantes.
MW: God bless 'em, and I hope they come back for the next novel, but your core readers are there for the stories. They are, "Oh a book of stories, now he's a real writer." Writers' reputations rest disproportionately on their stories.
RB: Do publishers share that view?
MW: Yes and no. I think there is a dim understanding of this. Your ability to last as a writer has so much to do with your ability to get anthologized. You are not going to get a novel anthologized. Shirley Jackson will never go away because of "The Lottery." There will come a time when no one is reading anything by James Baldwin except "Sonny's Blues." Was it his best work? Yeah, actually it was. There are 25 essays as good or almost as good as that. In neither case does the story represent the career. Likewise John Cheever. The "Swimmer" is a very anomalous Cheever story, but it is the first thing people are going to think about when they think about John Cheever. Forever, probably. Getting stories anthologized and things like that make a career is really important. This is on my mind because I am doing a textbook/anthology called "Three by Thirty-three." 3 stories each by American writers born after 1900, trying to cover that time. If I want an introduction to a writer's work I would much rather read a book of stories than a novel. You get to see a writer get a fictional world up and running 10 times.
RB: Does it seem because of the proliferation of writing programs that there are huge masses of short stories? Where do they go?
MW: Yeah, who knows where they go. There are more vaguely capable short stories being written now, I suppose, than any time in human history. I don't think that's a bad thing. People who complain about that, that all they see are reasonably well-crafted but ultimately dull and empty stories—editors who complain about that—what a good problem to have. Versus seeing a bunch of inept crap. There are a bunch of sub-issues that go into when editors are whining about this. First of all, "vaguely adept stories," they have to read. "Horribly inept" can be rejected very swiftly. Also, all these editors either never wrote or much more likely failed as writers and they are really underestimating how colossally difficult it is to write a merely competent story. That's essentially an impossible human act. Stories are very unforgiving as a form. The amount of skill and effort it takes to write a capable but ultimately dull story is something almost nobody is going to be a good enough writer to do. To slag that off as nothing—no, that's not nothing! That's probably farther than that editor ever got as a writer. I recognize that there's a legitimate complaint that people only get that far and don't get better. But all that's really saying is that people in creative writing programs are doing the work that editors used to do. Editors used to edit. They are mostly just acquirers now. That front-line editing mostly gets done by people's mentors.
RB: Or peer groups.
MW: Right. I'm doing a lot of the work for my students that editors used to do. I really preach this to my students, "Okay, now you are to a certain point in your writing. You have a bedrock layer of fundamentals. Guess what? That's nothing! As hopelessly difficult as that has been to achieve—a foundation is a good way to put it. If the foundation is solid than the building will fall down but if all you have is a foundation, you can't live inside that. For most writers the kind of growth they do after they get out of a creative writing program is everything. For the lazier, less committed, more timid, they don't necessarily get any better and they get to a certain point and stagnate artistically. And that is nothing and editors are right to bitch about that. But they don't always see the whole picture. I recognize how frustrating it must be that aren't exactly inept but aren't good enough to make you want to publish them. Well, okay. Great. There's not any real shortage of good stories. Any magazine that is perceived as a really important magazine whether they pay a lot of money or like Ploughshares that doesn't pay much but everyone sees it as an important magazine. They are not having any trouble—they may be sifting through massive piles to come up with what they have but they are filling their pages with great work.
RB: Does it seem that more people than ever want to be writers against a picture of a life that, more often than not, is full of despair and frustration and poverty?
MW: I've certainly spent a lot of time thinking about this. Why do people want to do something where almost everybody who does it is intensely unhappy?
MW: The obvious answer is also the elusive one—which is that most people are intensely unhappy. It kind of doesn't matter what they are doing. My wife is a lawyer. Here's a profession where almost everyone doing it despises their job and they make a lot of money. People who don't make as much money think, "Yeah, well you make a lot of money." For most people at a certain point, so what, "Great, I've made a lot of money and my life is hollow and I hate myself and nothing I do matters." There is a basic naivete that most people have about people who do work that is creative. When my wife was at a law firm she felt her day was occupied basically picking up the phone and being yelled at by other lawyers. All that this was about was one rich person arguing to another rich person. It wasn't about anything. It was just about money that was going to change hands. It was completely about nothing. There is that feeling, mostly naive, that if you are writing, it's about something. People feel that way about the arts all the way around. The difference with writing is that it is the only one of the arts where people don't appreciate the apprenticeship. They know they can't just become a ballerina. That it takes incredible years of study or they can't just become a classical composer or be a great jazz musician. Everyone has this idea that maybe on the weekends you could write a novel. As completely insulting as this is to writers it's also flattering, and it's given a certain kind of credence because every 4 years someone writes a novel that way. Unlikely but it happens. People don't recognize how important failure is. The kind of completely dopey mythology about writing your novel as a kind of self-expression that could be taken seriously—people have that, they don't have about the other arts with the slight exception of painting.
RB: Even after all this, people who go to writing programs are not naive—they know something about what they are up against.
MW: Yeah, that's true. You'd like to think there is a healthy percentage of people that just love books. Most people wind up doing something that chooses them more than they choose it, I really do believe. So much happens accidentally. I grew up in a trailer and grew up in a small town in Ohio where the idea of becoming a writer was just pretty remote. I couldn't even think, to think it. I didn't even dream it. I might as well have said I want to be a rodeo clown or an astronaut or a porn star. While I certainly spent a lot of time during my early apprenticeship as a writer bitter about that and the ghetto quality education I got at the rural high school put me at a real disadvantage. It also must be said that maybe was the best thing that ever happened to me. That being angry and scared, angry that I didn't have enough preparation and scared that I didn't have what it took made me more motivated than a kid who had a better education might have been. It's a mysterious thing. Who knows why it takes with one person and not another. I just gave a reading at my alma mater, George Mason, and ran into some people I went to grad school with and had occasion to have one those "whatever became of" conversations. When you are in a good graduate program you know statistically that no more than 1 or 2 are likely to make it as a writer—whatever that means, even as a minimum be seen as a writer and have something that vaguely resembles a career. And you can't figure it out how that could possibly be, all these really talented people. It's kind of more about life choices—how determined you are to keep at it. How determined you are to continue to grow. How badly you want it. People in grad school, they don't understand any of that.
RB: That does bring us to your belief in the determining feature of the work ethic.
MW: If they have no talent no matter what their work ethic is they will recognize that their talents lie elsewhere. This is my 20th year teaching. I have had the experience myself in grad school and also looking at my talented students and wondering who is going to make it and why. It's certainly true of undergraduates, that the most talented undergraduates, you can write them off. They'll never be writers. They don't have any chance. They are freaked out by that they just did it. They don't know how they did it. People who are brilliant at 19 freak out. They don't know what to do with that, "How'd I do that? I don't know." And also, early praise is terribly damaging. We live in a culture that thinks the entire country is above average. 'C' is a bad grade now. 'C' is what an 'F' used to be. So everybody gets this fatuous early praise and it ruins everybody who receives it. So they are all destroyed by it. People who are a little farther along, blossoming later, even then I would bet on the person who shows up at the computer every morning than the one who has a world of talent and no discipline.
RB: Let me take a sharp turn here. Any of these stories crack you up when you were writing them?
MW: (laughs) Boy (long pause). I don't think so. I guess as a Midwesterner my knee-jerk reaction is that it's unseemly to laugh a your own jokes.
RB: Some of the stories had me laughing uncontrollably.
MW: I appreciate that.
RB: I don't know how you wrote it down.
MW: Because you are inside it. I would like to think there are a lot of funny things in these stories but also think that what is funny is a consequence of telling a good story rather than "Hey, look, I'm trying to make a joke here." There is probably nothing less funny than talking about why something is funny.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing