Ayana Mathis Interviews Allan Gurganus. (Also featured as an Author Spotlight Interview).
Iowa Writers Workshop, January 2010.
The Midwestern winter is doing its worst—everything is brown, everything that isn’t brown is gray, and all of it is covered in ice. It’s my second semester, I’m feeling a bit demoralized (what am I doing? What’s my book about? Do I have a book? Argh, if only I’d become an accountant!). Enter Allan Gurganus. Passionate, unconventional, funny (so very funny), smart as all get out and one of the most generous teachers I’ve had the privilege of learning from. Paris Le Monde called him, “A Mark Twain for our age,”. The late, great John Cheever declared him “the most technically brilliant and morally responsive writer of his generation.” Heady stuff, and yet the man that I encountered had that rare ability to bring an entire classroom to knee-slapping belly laughter and simultaneously offer wisdom about writing, and life, that I won’t ever forget.
Two years later it is my great pleasure to interview Allan Gurganus, to have another opportunity to learn a little more from (and about) one of our American masters. Without further ado a conversation about identity, “compassioning” and good ol’ storytelling, with Allan Gurganus.
Q: I want to begin by talking about the ways, in your work and elsewhere, that people immediately define themselves. There are obvious labels: White, Latino, black, gay, straight, Northern, Southern, Californian, etc. How have the ways you identify yourself created imperatives in your fiction?
A: Literature is a back-stage pass (“I’m with the banned”). It’s a license to bridge all incidental racial-sexual-identifiers, important as those seem to us. Especially those of us proudly belonging to one or several discredited minorities.
On becoming a poet or novelist, the laws of privilege happily reverse. Aside from Edith Wharton, I can’t think of a great American writer from a truly upper-class family (no money woes ever). In fiction, the more races, classes, sexes and bankruptcies you belong to, the luckier! . . . My own outlaw status is central to my ethos. It’s the core outsider energy of my writing. “Rage” is considered unhealthy. But what about the Rage to Protect!
Q: How else do you identify?
A: How about Genus and Species? As living walking-around citizens with access to mirrors, naturally we first notice our colors, our most externalized sex gear, any native-dress or regional disguises. But there are interior claims far more basic than whether we came off God’s conveyer belt as a Plain or Peanut M & M!
Being living suicidal entities on a planet we’ve helped self-destruct, we might first list ourselves as “Mammals”. I mean this. In a strange way, the thing an artist most seeks to create on the page is energy, identification as another sentient valid Animal. It is helpful to think of your main character as preeminently a beast.
Too often we stop at being middle-class; we write too often about people who talk far better than we do. They can usually be found on couches, in bad marriages with loud ironic TVs blaring pointed counterpoint. Z Z z z . . .
We forget about living and breathing and fighting for life. We are living such insular coddled lives. I mean, even those of us who, in our imperial USA, today feel ‘poorest’. Six million children died of starvation last year.
So my first goal would be, I guess, not to write just Gay Bisexual fiction, much less White fiction, but One True Animal Tales.
Q: But how do you get the Animal back into, say, a Novel of Manners?
A: Well, maybe creating an animal-worthy narrative means bombarding your reader with a trustworthy batch of absolute sensations–hot and cold, hunger, sexual craving, intense sounds, unrepeatable colors.
This usually means inventing a credible first-page threat or danger.
I love the chaotic opening of “Anna Karenina”. The head of the household has seduced the children’s French nanny, his wife is sobbing, the religious servants are quitting, the children (quick to scent disaster) have gone feral. In comes Aunt Anna and, within days, she has made sure the nanny is sent packing and paid off, she has renewed the bruised marriage, has combed and calmed the children. And, having seen her save her brother’s household, we must soon watch her savage then sacrifice her own forever. But how we love her merely twenty pages in! Tolstoy teaches us how–by so fervently doing it himself.
It’s only when we feel some such generous . . . being at the center of the fiction that we come to care a bit. Once a living force is created pictorially and tonally, once we have put a real toad in the imaginary garden of written symbology, secondary issues of gender, race, nationality pertain less. Personal music has ascended to something known to us all. What’s required is an absolute identification with another life expressed in a music built to match that life.
I am nominally a gay man and former Navy veteran, a blue-eyed Protestant right-hander of a certain age and size. But, in imaginative fiction, such categories matter only insofar as they allow me egress into others’ lives. Only then might I come correctly ethically back into my own.
Q: Fiction is a sort of heightened state that the writer convinces us is natural. This is managed by the oddness of narration and by all the ways time can pass.
I want to talk a bit about how time gets altered and manipulated in fiction generally and in yours in particular. As the writer of both short stories and a very long novel—time management must have been crucial, could you speak a little about the ways you’ve used time in your work.
A: Time, so good at using us up, must be rigorously used back!
I do have a blind-faith in chronology. That literally means “clocklogical”. Being so mortally subject to it myself, sometimes I want hacksaw-revenge on it.
Still, when in doubt as a writer, we’re probably best advised to tell events in the order of their happening. Only later might we come back and do what Pinter did in “Betrayal”. Tell a love story in reverse order. Run the romance from a terrible divorce backwards to the ideal couple’s first sight of each other. W.S. Merwin wrote, “No story begins at the beginning. The beginning does not belong to knowledge.”
Time in a short-story makes one surgical strike. Time in a novel is more rat-nest cumulative. A novel testifies to the durability and necessity of communities over time. A story believes, as someone very young and correctly romantic often does, that one moment in life can change you forever . . . Yes, I think people are changed and damaged by single events. But, unless you booked passage on the Titanic, no single one of those usually becomes the summa of your lifetime.
I am now sixty-four and I have had more than a few lovers and many many chances to begin again. Thirty of my friends died of AIDs in the 1980’s but I somehow live to tell the tale, mine and theirs, mine in and as theirs. I have matured (or devolved) into a longer-winded parenthetical writer. So the novel seems my likely final workshop-cave and cozy tomb.
Q: I want to talk some about “White People”. As I read, it seemed that issues of inclusion or exclusion, based on identity, were extraordinarily important. In a story like “Minor Heroism” or even “Blessed Assurance” those issues are easy to see. But I think they’re also present in “Condolences to Every One of Us” or “It Had Wings’. . . . The characters are ostensibly within the main, but are written with such detail and compassion and that the reader comes to understand they are struggling with being who they are. Could you talk a little about the humanity and complexity of your characters?
A: “Compassion” literally means “To Suffer With. To Pity”.
But, from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century it was actually a verb: “When he fell ill, I compassioned him.” Curious how, as the twentieth century arrived with its greater need for mass compassioning, the word retreated to a noun!
I guess all Fiction intends to return `compassion’ to being an active verb. How? Well, we invent characters that are as secretly typical as they feel unique. We subject them to play-miseries they either survive or succumb to. In this way, we create a puppet world, a desktop try at getting things right, at finally understanding.
I’ve never believed in a conscious caring God. But that hasn’t prevented my trying to show how such a One might spend His workdays. Justice. I get to reinvent Justice every morning. (Even if it’s only meted out to certain written puppets).
Q: There is such music in your language. . . . Popular consensus is that southern writers are at the top of the heap when it comes to musicality in prose. Can you talk a little about rhythm and sound in prose (for those of us who were born north of the Mason-Dixon?)
A: The surest shortcut to one’s own music (the only kind that counts) is reading your work aloud a lot. Every sentence of every draft. I myself sometimes forget. But you, Ayana, certainly do this and understand the principle in your supremely aural work. The first time I read you, I tried to go find you, physically. I simply wanted to see how such a set of ears actually LOOKED. Reading aloud alone, one soon hears every clunker or grace-note. Ears’ll tell you what, in your sentences, is dry cornstarch, what’s hot honey.
As for musical prose hitting only below the Dixon line: Some scholars think the Southern accent came about when working class whites heard French spoken around the homes of courtly
Lord Proprietors. In imitation of gentility, farmers tried slowing down their own diction. The Southern Accent might’ve started as a Scotch-Irish stab toward the sonorous eventuality of French.
Some claim August’s blinding heat hobbled the speed of Southern speech. Others say that, given our region’s numbing summer humidity, the single physical activity least likely to make you faint is: talking while sitting down. Long ago we made that our Olympic event.
Where I got born, there lived smart uneducated men and women who were–like blind Homer, led singing from house to house–good for little else but telling. They’d grown famous for certain tales and these were requested again and again as from some jukebox. “Bill, tell B-23. About the Widow and her Only Hog Left? YOU know.”
So, yeah, I do think writing Southerners are luckier than denizens of, say, Ohio. (But then Toni Morrison turned out okay.) Southerners know what a Story is before they’re taught to read and write.
Of course, every strength carries its peculiar in-built disability. Southern musicality, if allowed free reign, can come unmoored from any sense of humor. It can run clear away with us. Unfelt, it creates a Language solely in love with and listening to itself.
Q: I’ve had the enormous pleasure of hearing you read your work aloud, and it really is like watching a one-man-show. Complete with accents and dramatic pauses, the whole theatrical nine yards. That same drama is there on the page. It seems to me that story-telling is not as prized at it once was, sequences of quiet subtleties between characters are replacing big dramatic action (as if writers feel they have to choose between complexity/sophistication and a dramatic narrative arc). I really miss a good story. How important is story-telling?
A: Henry James laid out our trade’s holy motto: “Dramatize, Dramatize, Dramatize.” And yes, he needed all three iterations. One is for the dramatic circumstance of the novel as a whole, one is for the tension of a particular scene, and the last reminds us how an individual gesture within that scene must have its own particularizing contradictory force. (i.e.: An established klepto goes back to the store to return a stolen object, only to be arrested as, for a first time, she’s finally doing Right, poor thing. Dramatize.
Ironic modern hipsters speak of Story as if it were some postdated archaic form. Like the making of mead (Viking-fermented honey). Wrong.
Everything goes out of style except Once Upon A Time. Narrative is the atmosphere we gulp all day. Story is the dynamic force, and sculpting it our formative crucible. I recently reread Hardy’s great novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge”. It opens with a man, woman and baby, dispossessed, walking country roads without prospect of shelter or hope of destination. In the first twenty pages, the man has, at a county-fair’s gambling tent, put up his wife and child as collateral. He loses them both. Another fellow, the winner at cards, simply leads them away.
The rest of the book involves and investigate this drunken lapse. By giving ourselves over to such a seemingly simple situation and to Story, we gauge how much we’d willingly sacrifice for the people we love most. It’s one of the great openings…For me, the nineteenth century is the true goldmine of full-bore unembarrassed narrative invention.
Young writers sniff at Story at their own peril. Without an arc, a loop, some unifying question and line, you are writing sentences that have all the value of some stranger’s shopping list…. [And] When I say `Story’ I mean `A Situation of Tension Bound for Inevitable Showdown’. All chess games start with pawns and end with Check. Without Story, a described character has no purpose and must exist in print with all the in-urgency of a driver’s license detailing (“Brown, Blue, Male, 5’11’’). With Story, we find out what a man might do to save his family or, of course, to lose them on a single awful hand of cards.
Q: You offered a great bit of advice to young writers–make sure there is something funny on each page. . . . I wonder if you can talk a bit about ‘writing funny’, particularly about that balance between the comic and the dramatic that we see in your work.
A: I think people are born funny, or, alas, not. Sometimes you are around someone who looks and smells okay but you sense that something ails them, something is off or lost. You want to sniff them like some two-week old carton of milk. Then you realize they slid from their poor Mommas without a sense of humor! And no operation can open the sweeties up and stuff one in. There are writers like this and you must literally run from them.
If you cannot get a driving license without being able to parallel park, the same should go for writing a novel if you cannot tell a joke. Shakespeare and Chekhov—for me the greatest of all literary strivers—are our most dimensional comic writers. Yes, with tragical tendencies. . . . Hamlet’s killing the eavesdropping Polonius (disguised as one too-lumpy tapestry) is a comic scene gone rancid, wrong. Even Hamlet’s four-act inability to do a damned thing—all the while muttering self-loathing admonitions to himself—is pure Adolescence and therefore hilarious. If with last-act consequences most dire.
But on the page, one must always be funny about something. Otherwise it’s just a Neil Simon series of pranks going off like mousetraps in a row. Humor outranks (outlasts) mere jokes. Humor is a way of seeing human falls as the inevitable side-effect of human stances.
When in fiction, a really good laugh arises out of bad bad pain, a double and triple echo is achieved. When a written giggle turns midair to some war-whoop or sob, you’re creating something life-like, Baby. Then Humor ascends to the condition of human seriousness; the rerouting of pain to wit then quickly back, replicates our up-and down human condition itself.
Q: The act of writing is pretty tragicomic itself. Where do you find the stamina to keep working over a career that has spanned decades?
A: Well, not to brag, but: I am five months away from getting Medicare. Plus I can be secretly petty and, even after getting one line of Facebook fan mail, sidestreet vain. I am still stung by even social slights. Like Tennessee Williams “I understand everything but intentional cruelty”. I write daily despite, not because I have four books in print. They mean four less chances to get things right TODAY. I’ve spent that many old-dog’s new tricks. I must now find new ones suitable for right now.
Oh, yeah, and sometimes I’ll get locked into a spell of silliness when, however hilarious, everything goes meaningless as defacing graffiti sprayed in a language I cannot read. Other times a black hole finds my home; it adds extra-planetary weight to washing any plate, completing any errand. It slows my sense there’s anything’s left on earth of novelty, sweetness, value.
With so much gear and power at hand, I get to wake early. I umbilically re-attach myself to this old desk. I hope today’s hours here will finally grant me the clarity of a worthy new tale. I press everything hard into the writing. But I also quite literally `take my Time’. With both hands, greedy that way.
I seek to create a story’s required color be that a ‘slate-gray’ or maybe more a ‘taffy-white’. I want to keep finding the will to narratively charm, beguile and cajole always at just the right time. I keep admitting my own mortality one guffaw per page.
I long to imagine one more fiction others might find worthwhile. And then, once it’s been sent out aloud to other members of our herd, I want it remembered.
—Tell me true. Is that too much to ask?
Q: Surely not. Thank you.
A: I thank you. We have wound up places I didn’t know how to find before, and could never get back to again.