Paul Collins is founder and editor of the Collins Library imprint at McSweeney's, a project dedicated to the reprinting of unusual, out-of-print literary works, which has published English as She is Spoke by Jose da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino, To Lady into Fox by David Garnett and Ruhleben and Back by Geoffrey Pyke.
He is also the author of Banvard's Folly, Sixpence House, Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, a memoir on raising his young autistic son, and Community Writing. The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine is his latest effort. His work has also appeared in New Scientist, Cabinet, the Village Voice and Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times [“121 Years of Solitude”] an anthology edited by Kevin Smokler. Paul Collins lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with his wife and son.
Since Tom Paine is hardly a typical founding father it should come as no surprise that an inventive and enterprising mind such as Paul Collins would write an atypical book. In a nutshell, the politically dangerous Paine (who could claim a key role in the development of three modern democracies), who was an apostate excluded from every church upon his death, was buried in an open field on a farm. When some time later a former enemy (now converted to an admirer) retrieved Paine’s bones for burial in a planned mausoleum—which was never built—the whereabouts of Paine’s remains devolved into a mystery. Which is part of the stuff of Paul Collins.
Towards the end of a congenial chat, which took place at promontory at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, we touched on the Reading at Risk report, here’s Collins’s conclusion from a piece he wrote for the Village Voice:
"Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue," Gioia insists. I'm not so sure of that. Gioia seems happy indeed to grind out the old hurdy-gurdy song of cultural decay, dolefully performed by codgers who believe that Reading is declining and falling, rather than merely Reading as They Knew It. What Gioia and centuries of soundalikes never seem to learn is that it does keep falling, but toward a cultural ground forever speeding away from underneath it. Art, it seems, is rather like a satellite—perpetually hurtling earthward, and yet curiously fixed in its orbit.”
Robert Birnbaum: What did you want to be when you were growing up—when you were younger what was your answer to that question?
Paul Collins: When I was really young I was interested in archeology.
RB: Really young being?
PC: Second grade, actually.
PC: They had one of those days when you had to come to school with a tag saying what you were going to be when you grew up. I remember asking my dad who were the people that dig up skulls? And I guess the answer my dad could have given was “gravedigger.” But he fortunately understood what I was asking.
RB: He might have said “grave robber.”
PC: [laughs] He said, “It’s an archeologist.” That’s what I had them put on my tag and, of course, none [of the second graders] knew what that was.
RB: What was your reference point?
PC: I don’t really know, to be honest. I grew up in a really old house, which might have something to do with it. Our house was the oldest one, at least in the township. It dated from the 1720s or ‘30s. It had been an inn on the road to Philadelphia. And I think even as a little kid that idea fascinated me. All the doorways in the house were really low. Everything felt old.
RB: Did you discover things while you inhabited that house?
PC: It was weird, my parents when they bought that house discovered a cavity in the wall that turned out to be a water tank, and so they ripped it out and that became my room. I basically lived in a part of the house that hadn’t even existed for all purposes. There are certain parts of the house I remember distinctly and other parts are a total blank.
RB: The TV room and the billiards room.
PC: [laughs] Yeah.
RB: What was your next vocational aspiration?
PC: I don’t think I had a very clear notion of what I wanted to do with myself until probably tenth grade. I had always written—ever since elementary school. I had no notion that one could actually make a living off of it. [laughs] I’m still not sure that I do.
RB: I’m glad you said that—so I didn’t have to—
PC: I remember in tenth grade I decided for no particularly good reason that I was going to write a book. I remember this really distinctly. It was over the Christmas break.
RB: Hold on, now. In tenth grade, being fourteen or fifteen, your sense of choosing a vocation included the [conscious] necessity to make money?
PC: I had the notion at the time that one could not make a living off of writing. I was always writing, and I had the assumption that I was always going to keep writing. It didn’t occur to me until quite a bit later that it might be something I would like to do for a living.
RB: Maybe this is too fine a point, but I wonder when in one’s development one connects what they want to be with the manner of making a living. For children that doesn’t necessarily go to together. Except maybe until recently. My son’s pediatrician once expressed his astonishment that his young patients knew what various professions paid.
PC: I find that weird. I had no concept.
RB: Right. Me neither.
PC: I didn’t really give it much thought, I have to say. [I] certainly didn’t give any thought to what I actually would want to do to earn a living until I entered college and had to pick a major, and even then I went in as a preveterinary. I decided I was going to be a veterinarian.
RB: Did you have animals when you were growing up?
PC: Yeah, dogs mainly.
RB: Did you say hello to Rosie?
PC: I didn’t say hello to her. That was very rude of me.
RB: [laughs] She ignored you too. So, a vet and then what?
PC: I went to Wisconsin at Madison for a semester, in part because they have a big veterinary program there. But it was too cold, so I transferred to California, to Davis, because they also had a big veterinary program. And I was a really mediocre student. I had to work incredibly hard just to get a B in “O Chem.”
RB: For the uninitiated, that’s Organic Chemistry?
PC: Yeah, I did terrible at stuff like that.
RB: Was it required?
PC: Yeah for pre-vet there was a whole slew of science classes I was supposed to be taking. And yet there were people next to me in Lab who were not exactly breezing through it, but they were working no harder and doing much better at it; and, at the same time I was getting As in my English classes almost without even trying. All my energy was being directed toward my science classes. It was like a black hole of work. It finally hit me one day that I was in the wrong major.
RB: What, after three years of suffering?
PC: Fortunately it was only about one. After about a year I realized—what struck me, too—I knew a bunch of people in my English classes that were not doing well [laughs] and they were performing in English the way I was in my science courses. I realized I’m in the wrong thing—my talent is over here, working with language. And my parents were not real keen on that initially. They were very oriented toward me going into some high-paying profession of some kind.
RB: Are your parents immigrants?
PC: Yeah. [laughs] Both of them.
PC: My dad’s from Liverpool and my mom’s from outside Reading. And they both grew up quite poor. The classic thing: they worked themselves to death and they have done well for themselves. And here one of their kids announces basically, “I’m going to go be poor.” [both laugh] So they weren’t happy about that, and I don’t think they gave up the hope that I was going to go to law school or some thing. They didn’t give up until I got my Master’s in English. [both laugh]
RB: Well that speaks to their tenacity.
PC: It really does. [both laugh] At that point my dad was finally, “Well, I guess you’re working in English now, aren’t you?” [laughs] The weird thing was that I had already written three books by the time I decided to become an English major. In retrospect it seems a blindingly obvious move for me to make. And yet—
RB: No mentor? No one to say, “Paul, it’s staring you in the face.”
PC: Strangely enough, no. Part of the reason was I was at two very large universities—at Madison and then at Davis.
RB: Doesn’t university life start to contract around shared interests and clichés?
PC: I was taking survey courses and stuff like that.
RB: One of the generational distinctions I note is that in the postwar generation, my generation didn’t seem to value the notion of a mentor in the way that it seems more common today. It seems a lot of people in these generations after mine seem to cite a person or two who was influential in their lives.
PC: I had not thought of that before, but there really wasn’t anyone like that that in my life. There were writers who influenced me a tremendous amount. In high school, when I wrote my first book, I was flat out trying to copy Kurt Vonnegut—who I read for the first time early in tenth grade. And he just floored me. I just went, “I want to do this.” I felt compelled to be a writer and actually think of doing that with my life. It was more the example of other authors that had come before me. There wasn’t anyone whispering in my ear, on the faculty or anything like that.
RB: From what I know about you, you were inclined to write fiction until you came upon the idea of the Collins Library.
PC: Yeah, pretty much. I was writing fiction until ’97. At that point I had written five books, I guess.
RB: What happened to them?
PC: A couple of them I threw out. [both laugh]
RB: You didn’t leave them on your hard drive? Or go back to cannibalize what you had written?
PC: The early ones were handwritten. The later ones I composed on the computer; I still have them. Although the files are so old [that] they are probably corrupted and I couldn’t open them. I haven’t even tried to in years. The last thing I wrote in fiction was when I was living in New York, in Times Square, in ‘93. I wrote a short story collection, each set on a different block of Times Square in each chapter. It moves twelve blocks up the square on one side, then twelve blocks on the other. Like a clock face—I worked on it from ‘93 to early ‘96. I sent it around to a number of agents and went through the usual wringer. Agents writing back saying, “This is great but short stories don’t sell.” After about a nearly a year and a half of that, I continued sending it out—at that point I was twenty-eight—I always assumed I was going to be a fiction writer—it never occurred to me to do nonfiction. I came across Banvard’s story, initially. I thought it was such a great story. My first impulse might have been to write a piece for a scholarly journal, but at that point I was becoming disenchanted with academia. I had been working as an adjunct for a while and finishing my dissertation.
RB: Did you finish?
PC: No. The funny thing is, I finished the book—a composition textbook I was writing—and took it to my committee, and they came back and said it was great but we also want you to use it in classrooms for a year or two and record the results. And when they came back to me with that—it was the same week I got my contract for Banvard’s Folly—and I just went, ”Screw you people,” and dropped out of grad school [both laugh]. “I’m an author now!”
RB: Really. No need to turn students into lab rats.
PC: The textbook was published.
RB: Meaning you get royalties?
PC: Yeah. Technically that was my first book. It was called Community Writing. It came out a month or two before Banvard’s Folly. Nobody really knows about it—it’s a textbook and nobody reads it voluntarily. [laughs]
RB: Want to explain what the Collins Library is?
PC: When I was writing the bibliography or Further Reading essay at the end of Banvard’s Folly. And I was writing about George Psalmanazar, an imposter from the early 1700s who went around claiming to be Taiwanese. He was probably French. After he died—he lived to be very old—they found a memoir locked in his desk with a note that said “to be published after I die.” His memoirs came out in 1763, and what I noticed when I was compiling this bibliography here was an edition in 1763, and a pirated edition in 1764, and then that’s it. And Psalmanazar, although not known to the general public, is fairly famous among historians of hoaxes and Asiatic studies and things like that.
RB: Is that a big field?
PC: It’s not a big field.
RB: The history of hoaxes?
PC: Put it this way: He’s well enough known that it was shocking that he has been out of print for over two hundred years. I found that bizarre—that at least some academic press or some small press or someone hadn’t put it out. I went, ”Somebody should put this out. I can’t believe someone hasn’t done it. And then I said, “Hey, McSweeney’s should put it out. McSweeney’s can do anything.” So I emailed Dave [Eggers] and I just suggested—
RB: Did you know him at that time?
PC: I had been writing for McSweeney’s for few years at that time. And the pieces [that] ended up becoming Banvard’s Folly ran in McSweeney’s first. So I emailed him suggesting, “What if we did a series of reprints of weird old books that have been forgotten and been out of print for a long time?” And as is often the case with Dave, I didn’t hear anything.
PC: [laughs] That happens a lot. I don’t take it personally. He’s got a lot of people emailing him. I thought, “Whatever.” And then eight months later, out of the blue, there’s an email from him. “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea.” [laughs]
RB: Does he live in a sort of imminent present? All manner of strands float around him and he just picks one without consciousness of any real time?
PC: I don’t know—part of it is. I cannot even imagine the volume of email he gets.
RB: Especially as he is of the generation that thinks nothing of emailing on the slimmest pretext without forethought (or spell checking).
PC: That’s the thing about McSweeney’s. I don’t know if McSweeney’s could have happened fifteen or twenty years ago. It has an almost defining reliance on email. I didn’t even meet Dave for the first two years that I worked with him. I published a whole bunch of pieces and had already received my book contract. All this stuff happened before I actually met him in person—it was all by email. And I think it’s true for a lot of the other writers too.
RB: I do think it’s generational. I never met (or talked on the phone to) my poker playing, Zen colleague Matt Borondy for the first three years we worked together. There was something charming and pure—[something] direct about that.
PC: Yeah, you often think of literary movements or scenes based around certain person’s house or neighborhood—they all go to drink at the same bar, something like that. There’s almost no equivalent to that with McSweeney’s. There’s 826 Valencia in San Francisco.
RB: That came after.
PC: Right, that came way after. And there was the McSweeney’s office itself in Brooklyn, which was basically Dave’s apartment and pretty much just him. It really was something that came together as just this web of email contacts between people.
RB: Odd that it has resulted—something about McSweeney’s has sparked an anti-McSweeney’s backlash.
RB: When I think about it, what bad things has Dave Eggers and or the coterie done other than perhaps suggest there is an exclusivity about McSweeney’s?
PC: It doesn’t surprise me. If you look at any literary movement, there is pretty much always a backlash. There are always going to be people who don’t like it either just on legitimate aesthetic grounds—its just not their cup of tea—or there are people who feel locked out or whatever and they feel like they missed the boat, or feel like the people who are in it—their perception of the personalities of the people who they probably haven’t even met—somehow rubs them the wrong way. “I hate what I have heard about you.” [laughs]
RB: The response to McSweeney’s seemed exaggerated and quite personal.
PC: Part of it is that people are very suspicious of earnestness. I don’t quite know how to put this—I don’t think my current work would bear any marks that would lead someone to know this, but I did my master’s thesis on Jack Kerouac.
RB: Jack Kerouac, Thomas Paine, hmmm.
PC: A lot of the things that interested me were not necessarily the things that people think about with Kerouac—
RB: Like his relationship with his mother—
PC: Yes. [laughs] I was really interested in his sense of place in his writing. He really drew from the tradition of Thomas Wolfe, and also there was a real sense of moral outrage in a lot of his writing. The ironic thing being that a lot of people are denouncing him as being part of some sort of immoral generation or movement. A lot of the beat writers got some of the same reaction, where the outrage [pauses] the disbelief over what they were trying to do and what they said they were trying to do seemed disproportionate to what they had said or to their work. I’m not really sure where that comes from—to some extent it’s something I try to avoid—
RB: What are you trying to avoid? The partisanship?
PC: Not so much that. I try to avoid the discussions that are not about the work.
PC: I try to avoid the gossip, which to some extent is an easy thing to do, because I have always been out of the loop. In a real sense, I have always lived out of the way.
RB: It’s tough to avoid the subsidiary issues they seem to be invasively pervasive. I talked to a young writer who is controversial—and then someone who had written two reviews and the second recanted the initial decent review (which on the face of it seems tainted). And somewhere, in an email, or in a conversation, I made fun of that dubious thing. The reviewer then chided me for publicizing a horrible book—as if that is what I do, act as a publicity agent. This is a major fallacy, that journalism can now be subsumed into publicity. Where does this mentality come from, which occupies a lot of space in the literary world?
PC: It’s easier to talk about people than about writing.
RB: Yes, but I also find it hard to separate the people from their work
PC: I’m making a facile statement when I say that.
RB: I remember thinking that it’s only the work seemed like such a limiting thing when I was engaged in a chat about naturalist photographer Galen Rowell, who traveled to some very inhospitable places to make his pictures. That made it impossible for me to only think about the pictures and not how they were made.
PC: I did a piece for The Believer called “Read the Book that you are Reading.” There were comments where they said, “He’s saying ‘ignore the writer, focus on the writing.’” That wasn’t what I was trying to get at, although I probably didn’t express it real well at the time. It is helpful to know the circumstance in which a book was written and to know about the writer—as a historian it would be pretty hypocritical of me to say otherwise, because that’s what I spend my time doing; and yet it serves as a buttress to understanding the work, but it’s not a substitute for engaging in the work. That’s where I run into problems—I spend a lot of time reading newspapers and blogs and stuff like that, and there is, of course, a lot of gossip there—I try not to let it occupy much of my mind. I know most the time, when people are talking about an author, they have not met the person. They have met the work, not the person, so they can’t make a very good call on the person. That doesn’t preclude conversation—because I haven’t met George Bush I can’t say anything about him. But when I see people talking about an author in that way and criticizing or lauding them for things other than the work itself, I take it with a grain of salt.
RB: The causal links are tenuous. Look at someone who has been abused in their childhood—they could become an abuser or not. That doesn’t exist as a sufficient reason.
PC: The longer I have been writing, the more hesitant I have become about ascribing influences when I look at a writer—“Clearly they are under the influence of so-and-so.” You can say they resemble so-and-so, but as far as influences, its really hard to tell. Literary movements are defined in retrospect. You might group together people who wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as related when it was actually happening. That’s true of motives too. When you see a reviewer going, “Well, so-and-so is jumping on this bandwagon,” you don’t know how long that writer was working on his book. It might have been that when they’d started there was no bandwagon.
RB: That seems to be implied by your efforts with the Collins Library—even serious readers will look at literary history, look at the nineteenth century, and think there are perhaps twelve or fifteen writers.
PC: [chuckle] Right.
RB: We know now, in our own time, [that] there are countless writers—and that would seem to be true of—
PC: —of other eras too?
RB: That there are relics and fragments remaining from some people and not others is very misleading.
PC: There is that “greatest hits” tendency of history. Two hundred or three hundred years from now when someone mentions twentieth-century music, people will probably go, “Oh yeah, Beatles.” And that will be it. [laughs] There is this enormous body of work and they just say, “Oh yeah, Beatles.”
RB: It requires a very conscious effort to look past the stuff that is easily available. I have been very much rewarded by picking up books and music and watching movies that I know nothing about or that have not been gate-kept. That of course tempts one to think about the business when you see how serendipitously some work gets attention and other work doesn’t.
PC: The only thing I can think of as far as that goes is that, other than being at the right place at the right time, and in no small measure having the right kind of talent, some of it is simply the ability to keep putting oneself out there, to be prolific. There are a lot of authors; if you name a certain author someone will be able to name one book, when in fact when [if] you look further you discover that they have twenty or thirty books they wrote. You think if they hadn’t written that one book we might not know about them now. It’s only because of that one book that the rest of their back catalogue is even known.
RB: What do you think of the pronouncement that no great work goes undiscovered? Have you heard that said?
PC: No, I haven’t. You sometimes hear editors or agents or people like that: “Well if a writer is really good they’ll find a publisher.” That’s nonsense. If a writer is really good they are more likely to find a publisher, but it is entirely possible that they won’t. [both laugh]
RB: And how would we know if they didn’t? You mentioned “dead ends” somewhere. Do the last three books you have done represent a rising to the top from many things that you have pursued that turned out to be dead ends? When you started the Tom Paine book, did you know you were going to follow his story all the way through—did you even start with Tom Paine?
PC: Not necessarily. Not Even Wrong and Banvard’s Folly were both directed works, as far as their manner of composition. I knew what I wanted to do, and I did it. Sixpence House and The Trouble with Tom were much more chaotic. Sixpence House wasn’t even supposed to happen, initially. I was going to write a sequel to Banvard’s Folly called The Monkey’s Uncle. Banvard’s Folly sold ok—I got my advance, but that was about it. So when I went back to Picador, saying, “Hey, here’s a sequel,” and I had already written a third of it, they were like, “Thank you, but no.” I had written about a hundred pages or so. I decided I will write something about Hay-on-Wye. I had never written a first-person, a memoir, before. So there were a lot of false starts in terms of getting my voice and deciding what I wanted to do—essentially doing a travelogue and subverting it—taking what was becoming a kind of hackneyed genre of “foreigner goes to cute village abroad and settles down and buys a creaky old house.” Except I don’t settle down and I don’t buy the house. And instead it’s really a book about books. People who read it as a travelogue really were mystified by it. And what happened was—I told Picador, “I am going to do this thing about Hay.” I wrote the whole thing and gave it to them and they didn’t like it. And it was, I think, because they were expecting A Year in Provence. [laughs] It was one of those things where my agent stopped returning my calls and emails.
PC: It was bad. It was in late 2001. Right after Banvard’s Folly had come out, and the stuff from that had just died down and now my agent and publisher don’t want anything to do with me. I’m thinking, “My career is over. [laughs] My career has lasted four months and it’s over.” The infuriating thing was that I would look at Sixpence House and think, “I know that this a big jump forward for me.” So I went to a new agent. And once she got it there were three publishers bidding on it within a couple of months. It was almost like my previous agent and publisher—
RB: That would be the infuriating part of it. It doesn’t allow people to ignore it—someone submits a book to fifty-seven publishers and the fifty-sixth takes it. And it goes on to win awards. When you know that happens, it stays with you.
PC: It happens over and over again. In this case it had only been rejected by one place, but it was the place I thought was going to take it. I had not written what they expected, and so they couldn’t read it for what it actually was.
RB: Talking to Tom Bissell, his take on it was that it is not like editors and agents don’t want to make good choices and not do good work. Somehow there are mistakes, or whatever you want to call them.
PC: Now I have written on enough different topics that if I go to a publisher and want to write a book about X or Y there is a pretty good chance they will go, “I guess you could do that.” But at the time the only thing I had done was the one book. And that’s how they saw me—as a historical writer. They didn’t know what to make of it when I wrote in another genre. You asked whether a book came about from a series of failures, other things that had hit dead ends. I actually had the skeleton of the travelogue, and I wanted to make it a book about books and make it deliberately digressive. I wanted to frustrate the tendency of the genre, not fall into certain types of stories.
RB: The neatly packaged narrative.
PC: Yeah, the foul-mouthed plumber comes over and wrecks our plumbing and you can’t speak the language to him. Just all that kind of crap. I just didn’t want to write one of those books. We were living in Eugene, Oregon, at the time, and I would go to library every day and just grab old magazines and books off the shelves.
RB: Is this where you discovered Notes & Theories?
PC: No that was in Portland.
RB: Still Oregon.
PC: The library at the University of Oregon is near a graveyard—it’s like the pioneer cemetery. You have to walk through it to get to the library, and when you are sitting in the library it is overlooking the cemetery. And so I’d get these old books and magazines at random and start reading them. And I’d find interesting things and photocopy them. The challenge was—each evening when I was writing the next couple of pages of the book—to somehow work in something I’d found in one of those old sources that day, into the narrative. It was great because it meant that my reader could not possibly know the next thing I was going to talk about because I did not know from day to day what I was going to be writing about. It was a weird kind of formal experiment, but it was a way to deliberately frustrate my own tendency to fall into a pat narrative.
RB: If there is a subtext to what you write is it—and perhaps my expression of this is banal . . . but that there are millions of stories?
RB: When I was reading the Tom Paine book, this guy who walked—
PC: John Stewart, Walking Stewart. I couldn’t believe it when I found his story. [laughs]
RB: My thought was he could readily have been his own book.
PC: I enjoy being able to take even a small cross-section of that kind of stuff—there is vast amounts more of it out there. To at least give a sense of how much is out there that’s overlooked. Part of it too: I noticed that four books about bees and honey-making came out at the same time. Four single-subject nonfiction books, and I felt so bad for the authors because it seemed that they had all put in quite a bit of work and—
RB: Are you including a book of poetry by Nick Flynn that is about bees?
PC: No, I didn’t even know that. [laughs] And that happens with biographers: two biographies on the same person come out within a month of each other, so of course they get compared and reviewed and someone who has just spent years researching a topic—their work is instantly diminished. [It’s] one thing I try to do in creating my books, almost a kind of insurance; there is no way they are reproducible because they are so chaotic. Even if someone else wrote a book about Tom Paine’s bones, it would not even remotely resemble what I wrote.
RB: You have a kind of grasshopper mind—digressive and fascinated by many things. And it’s contrary to the prevailing impulse to tie up everything neatly and create an well-ordered world, which doesn’t, in fact, exist.
RB: I was surprised by your piece in the Bookmark Now anthology in light of the essay you wrote in the Village Voice on the infamous NEA report. Which one was first?
PC: Kevin [Smokler] wrote the introduction for the book and the jacket copy was after the NEA. He initially approached me about the book, in 2003, and I wrote that piece three months before the NEA report was even a gleam in anyone’s eyes, other than the NEA. I think that’s why a number of pieces in the book don’t seem connected. But it’s better for it. My wife made the comment that she always noticed when she was in art school, when there was a themed show for art, the more the artists stuck to the theme, the worse the show. [both laugh] I really had that in mind, and Kevin had mentioned the general idea behind the anthology; I thought I would approach it in the loosest fitting manner possible.
RB: Showing as opposed to saying, things like that?
PC: Exactly. Maybe [the] more that other writers did that, the less the thing would cohere necessarily, but maybe the better it would be for the reader. To the extent that the essays go in a bunch of different directions, people will be able to read that anthology in five years and get something out of it, whereas if it was really about the NEA report, it would have the shelf life of milk.
RB: Not to mention that NEA report strikes me as demonstrably silly, almost not worth dignifying—I characterize a certain mentality as sophomoric—as when as an undergraduate we would regularly gather in the Student Union or such and decry the downfall of civilization because of this or that. [Dana] Gioia’s study seemed to be a normal, almost cyclical fear-mongering.
PC: I get that all the time just from reading old magazines.
RB: I thought that was the powerful part of your essay, reaching back almost a hundred years or so, quoting diatribes against television driving—
PC: Against penny postage.
RB: Electric lamps.
PC: That’s a common thing for people to indulge in. It’s probably always been the case. It doesn’t surprise me at all—that’s what people do.
RB: I was amused that unlike the shock of the Russian launching of Sputnik, there was no reaction, or call to action, other than ire that came from a segment of literati.
PC: It has the effect of telling people what they wanted or didn’t want to hear. People who were inclined to not believe that report just went, “Oh this report is flawed.” And for the croakers, who think that things are going to hell in hand basket, they went, “Oh look things are going to hell in a hand basket!” Part of the problem was that if a report like that were going to be useful, it would also have to be prescriptive. First of all it would have to find an actual problem. Let’s say it did.
PC: Then it would actually have to offer up something to do. And it really had neither.
RB: You read it. I didn’t. I prefer to sit in my limited, hermetic world in which I note many people reading, and I am willing to say that’s the world [as I know it]. And if it’s not, what bad consequences follow?
RB: I thought the NEA report was silly in the face of it. So you have published a book on a Welsh village that seems to be one big bookstore. And then a book on your son’s autism?
PC: Basically it’s a memoir about Morgan’s autism—really about the first year after he was diagnosed. And that is used as framework for going into the history of it. For the two things to act as foil to each other—his behavior helps illuminate some of the historical figures. But, by the same token, the history gives you a context for understanding his autism.
RB: You acknowledged Dr. Maria Asperger. Is she related to the man who created that diagnosis?
PC: She’s his daughter, and when I was trying to find his clinic in Vienna, I emailed her and she gave me directions to where it had been.
RB: I was unaware of that syndrome until I read Margot Livesey’s short story in the New Yorker that was the first chapter of Banishing Verona.
PC: I don’t know it. Because Asperger’s paper wasn’t translated until 1980, it didn’t have any—
RB: That seems odd.
PC: It’s one of those weird things. People weren’t being diagnosed with any kind of autism spectrum disorder—people who had it.
RB: It was a monolithic diagnosis?
PC: They diagnosed people with severe autism. People who had Asperger’s—who maybe were functional but nonetheless had real problems—they were just classified as odd. Or discipline problems or social misfits. People didn’t relate it to autism—it seems silly—simply because a single paper wasn’t translated. Because Asperger’s work never made it into English for forty years. And once that happened, then it started to get some momentum and the awareness of there being a broader spectrum of autism came about. I was reading an interviewer with Gary Neumann, the musician. He has Asperger’s. There are a lot of people as adults are finding out that they have Asperger’s—they knew they were different but didn’t know how because there wasn’t a word of it.
RB: As certain kind of crimes barely existed because they were not or underreported. You wouldn’t want to claim there is a progression of causal chain linking the books that you have written.
PC: Not in the subject matter per se. There certainly is in the way they were written. Sixpence House is not a surprising book to someone who read Banvard’s Folly. It was probably quite obvious that I was interested in things that get lost and obscured, and here’s this whole town of nothing but books that are lost. But in terms of actual narrative, it was a complete jump for me. I felt like I was diving into a pool that might or might not have any water. In Not Even Wrong I combined my work for Banvards’s Folly and my technique from Sixpence House. But that will probably remain as my most personal book.
RB: Very sweet that you referred to Morgan in the acknowledgments as the best greatest kid in the world.
PC: He is.
RB: Well, you bothered to say it. In a book.
PC: Other than just the fact that’s what I think as a parent. He’ll be reading it some day. I would if I knew someone had written a book about me as a kid. And I want him to know that.
RB: Why are you living in Iowa?
PC: Morgan’s school. He was about to go into kindergarten and there had been these terrible budget cutbacks in Oregon—in fact they were going to end the school year early last year. And they shut down the special education classrooms; and said we are going to “full inclusion”: we’re going to put the kids in regular classrooms. And they tried to use the rhetoric that it was a good thing.
PC: It wasn’t. He was going to go into a program at preschool where there were six kids and three instructors and assistants to a classroom with thirty-two kids and one teacher not trained in special ed. And we went to the meeting and we asked, “What if he runs? Sometimes he just bolts from a room.” You have to always be on top of things with him. “Who’s going to be watching him?” When we brought up the safety issue, that he might run and get hurt, they said, “He might do that?” “Have you ever seen an autistic kid? That’s what they do.”
RB: These were professional educators?
PC: They didn’t have any special training.
RB: I don’t either, and I know that’s dumb.
PC: At that point I came away from it and said, “This is unacceptable.” I couldn’t put him in that school. I knew I wanted to live in a kind of college town—I need access to a research library.
RB: It’s cold in Iowa City.
PC: Oh yeah.
RB: So you’ve gotten over your aversion to cold
PC: To some extent. It was a bit rough. We got used to it and the special ed. program is fantastic
RB: Not teaching?
PC: It looks like they are going to bring me in to teach one course this fall. In the English department. But the schools in Iowa are fantastic, and the state ought to be proud of what it’s done in special ed.
RB: In the fly over zone.
PC: And yet its schools are fantastic.
RB: Why do you think that is? Do you sense that the Midwest is looked down upon, and why?
PC: Of course. It is looked down upon because it is in the middle of nowhere. [laughs]
RB: There is nowhere and there’s nowhere.
PC: I say that like I’m being mean, but I grew up in small town, and it’s just one of those kinds of places. You get outside of town and there are just fields and fields and fields. If you are coming from San Francisco or New York and you see that, you just go: what do people do there?
RB: And the coasts dominate the culture because?
PC: They have an outsized influence on the media because that’s where the media emanates from.
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing