An Interview by Julia Cosmides

It seems an unprecedented stroke of good luck that Jane Smiley chose "The Artist" to appear in The Best American Short Stories of 1995 just as the University of Notre Dame Press was in production on Acid. What was it like to have her choose one of your stories for the volume?

Most of the short story writers I admire have been in The Best American collection. Ray Carver said that when his first story came out in The Best American he took the book to bed with him and slept with it. I know what he felt like. It's a thrill. I was very pleased about it, and it didn't hurt that I also got a chance to publicize the Sullivan Prize.

Wouid you have chosen "The Artist" or is there another story in Acid which you wouid have preferred?

Well, I'm very grateful to Jane Smiley for selecting "The Artist," but I must admit that story has been a surprise to me from the beginning.

How so?

Well, it's not a typical story for me. There's more action than I generally write, more of a plotted quality to it. There's drugs and violence . . . and though they do turn up in my other stories, it's usually in more subtle ways. I was most shockod when Michael Curtis took it for The Atlantic. I really never thought it had a prayer there. Curtis is a terrific editor who's been rejecting me for ten years. Every time I sent a story, he sent it back with a few sentences saying why he wasn't publishing it. I'm grateful for the sentences, you know, but I'd stopped expecting him to ever publish a story of mine. And I had gotten into this process where I'd finish a story, I'd say "Well, I'll let Curtis reject it" and I'd send it to him, and that was the drying out period. When he was through rejecting it, then I would go through my second stage of rewriting on it. This one came back and I had to keep looking in the envelope because I just couldn't believe it. What happened was I'd gotten the check first. I got the contract for publishing it before Curtis got in touch with me, and I kept thinking there must be some mistake. So the biggest surprise was TheAtlantic publishing it; never expected it. And then that it got in BestAmerican was somewhat less of a surprise, because after it came out in TheAtlantic, it got a lot of attention: it got optioned for a movie, they published it on America Online, and I had a lot of e-mail asking questions about it and people telling me they really liked it. I pretended not to be as surprised as I really was. It's made me wonder if I should try to write that way all the time. I haven't yet, but . . .

I know you've talled about the use of violence in your work boefore, and Fred Chappell in his review of Plato at Scratch Daniels' suggests you use it to "ground" the reader and lend a sense of credibility to the world you create. Do you think that is a true assessment?

Fred Chappell did the only real essay-length review of the collection and he had a lot of good things to say about it. One of things he noted accurately was that the violence in most of those stories is a sort of background noise of our culture, and that's something I think a lot about. I live this safe and secure life; I've never known anybody who was murdered. And yet there's murder everywhere around me. I mean, I can't pick up a newspaper or turn on the television, can't talk, without hearing about murders, rapes, disasters, and yet I seem to be fairly insulated from it in my middle-class life. But that doesn't mean that I'm not affected by the fact that it's out there and that it happens, and so it disrupts the way that I live in the world, the way I think about the world. The violence in our culture, I think, affects the way people believe and the way they feel, and so in my stories I try to use that background noise of the culture, that violence of the culture, so that we can look at the way it affects the characters in the stories. I don't say, you know, "Because we live in a violent world, it's hard to have relationships"; but I might write a story in which a relationship is falling apart, and I'll have news of violence in the background so as to suggest that one may have something to do with the other. And that's what Chappell was noticing in that review, and he was right. I was so appreciative of someone taking the time to do an intelligent review. . .

In that same review, Fred Chappell seems to dismiss yourf first novel as too violent, so much so that the reader ceases to care about the characters. Was that intentional?

In WinterIn Florida I tried to write a novel where violence was portrayed with the ugliness that it has in the real world. A lot of that novel was a reaction to the romanticized violence of contemporary culture,Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies where people get killed by the dozens and nobody suffers. That, and it was Naturalist in that it wanted to suggest that we are all the same kinds of human beings, but our circamstances turn some of us into killers and some of us not. So the novel takes a middle class character out of his life, has him fall in with two undercass characters,children of prostitutes, one is illiterate,and he gets caught up in violence and winds up doing some incredibly violent things. The other characters face no real moral consequences; but there are consequences for him. He leaves full of shame. There's a lot of vulgarity in the novel and that's because of the characters and situation I was writing about. And I think it just may have been too much for most readers.

In Kirkus, they talk ahout the clarity and uniqueness of your voice. What kind of searching process did you go through before you settled on a prose style, on the voice that you use?


Well, I haven't settled on a voice. I do several kinds of writing,I write poetry, I write hypertext,in addition to short stories. I've written a couple of novels. I have one published novel and I just finished another novel, and I have a hypertext novel. My voice changes according to the work that I'm involved in. What probably doesn't change are the concerns, certain issues that keep coming back in the writing, and that's probably what Kirkus is talking about with voice. They compared me to Mamet and Shepard, and I think they're really thinking about subject matter and tone.

Chappell even compares you to writers like Henry James and Harlan Ellison. What writing styles have influenced you most as you've developed your own techniques?

I'm most interested in, and most in love with, the traditional short story as it comes down through Chekhov and writers like Poe and Hawthorne. There's a traditional kind of short story that Flannery O'Connor writes, as well as Frank O'Connor, and that gemlike, well-craÎted short story is the kind I try to write.

Yes, Jean Schroeder in the Ronnoke Times talLs about the highly conventional structure of your short stories. Given the trend in fiction tomard experimental, boundary-pushing" prose, do you feel any tension or pressure to be more controversial in your writing style?

I do feel pulled toward experimentation in writing, and toward playing with the elements of fiction rather than working them and crafting them in traditional ways. But usually I don't do that in the short story. The short story form represents an ideal for me. If you get the short story right, if you write one just right, it achieves the brilliance and solidity of a good poem. So I'm always aiming for that with the short story. I do my experimenting in different kinds of writing, mostly in hypertext and in the novel, where I take greater risks with form and language. The risks I take with the short story are different kinds of risks; they're not stylistic. My hypertext novel, A Dream with Demons, which Eastgate Systems will publish next year, has on one level, a traditionally written novel,it begins at the beginning and ends at the end,but in it, the prose style is much more lyric and less concerned about grammatical and syntactical formalities. And I'll play with point of view, move between third and first person,the kinds of things I don't do in a short story. My short stories essentially adhere to convention, because I'm trying to get it right. With the novel and poetry I'm much more willing to do all sorts of things, to see what happens when I do this, to sce what happens when the images are not presented linearly, when you let the reader choose the next image. Underneath the novel in A Dream with Demons is a hypertext that purportedly is the experiences of the author, so that you can read a hypertext of those experiences and then look at the novel and see how the author shaped them into this novel,how they got twistod, how they got changed, how they got shaped,so the two play interestingly side by side. My answer to your question, I guess, is that I do my experimenting in other forms than the short story, and basically because the short story doesn't seem like a form that, to me, is right for experlmentation.

You've mentioned hypertext a lot, but I have to confess that I don't entirely knew what it is.

Hypertext is writing that is meant to be read on the computer screen. Unlike writing that is meant to be read on the page, where one sentence follows another sentence and one page follows another page, on the computer screen you have alternative sequences. You don't have to read one page following the next page. You can let the reader choose what page is going to follow the next by clicking on a word with the mouse. So you point the mouse to a word and you click on it and you can have several places where the reader winds up, and each of those several places can have several more places. You can create a work that's never read the same way twice, that has many different ways of being read. Now the question is, what are you going to do with that? What can you do that's interesting? It blows all notions of closure out of the water; you can't close anything, because all of the timing elements that are involved with the traditional crafting of a piece of fiction are not there anymore. It becomes an interactive piece of writing. I think it's fascinating, interesting, full of possibilities. Hypertext leads to hypermedia, where you have different media involved, where you can use sounds and images. All kinds of possibilities. It's a terrific medium for experimentation.

How long does it take to write one of those nouels? If you have to constantly imagine where the reader can go, to create such a variety of different alternatives . .

What does it even mean to write one of them? Because you're not determining what sequence of words the reader is going to read, the reader does much of the writing, the reader does much of the work. I think of my hypertexts as a literary machine, something I build. For me, writing hypertext poetry involved thinking of the emotional center or core of the poem. I was writing about something, and then I had lots of images that revolved around it. It is not essential to read this image first or that image first; each of the images are connected to the center, so you can go from one image to the next. And according to the way you put the images together, you created a different kind of poem, a different kind of experience. So of course there's no ending, there's no stopping place; you could read for the rest of your life if you wanted to,if you didn't mind reading the same images over and over. My poems contained . . . I don't know, hundreds of images, probably. Eventually, I think the reader would just say "Well, I'll stop here," but there's no sense of closure, which is such a crucial part of traditional writing: bringing a thing to an emotional, ideational close, where you get to the end and the piece has its effect on you. But it's not there in hypertext. It doesn't work that way. The reader chooses where to start and where to end. It's like going into a moving stream of water and being in the stream for a while and getting out when you want, which is very different than our traditional notions of the way writing works.

It's interesting to think of bringing a piece of hypertext writing into a workshop setting for critique. It would certainly challenge the traditional protocolior evaluation!

It challenges every tradition of writing. There are people who would argue that it's not writing as we know it, it's something different. And it is. It's something new. I'm not sure where it's going. I think the generations growing up now with computers, generations who will grow up using computers, will create hypertext works side-by-side with literature,stories and poems. I don't think stories and poems are going anyplace. Hypertext is something different. I find it really exciting to be working with it in its early stages.

What's your opinion on the effectiveness of the workshop as a teaching method and for the betterment of aspiring writers? Do you use the workshop model in the creative writing classes you teach at Virginia Tech?

I think the value of the workshop is in creating a small community of writers. Writing comes out of community, it comes out of groups of people supporting each other and reading each others' work and influencing each other. The goal of a workshop is to create such a community. That's why we put our chairs in a circle; that's why we talk to each other; that's why I try not to be an overbearing influence, but rather take my part as one member of the workshop. And we work as writers. Writing is a process: you have these problems that you try to deal with, and if you talk to other writers about them they can give you some input on them,what's working, what's not working in a story, and workshops can be useful that way. I try to break my workshop discussions into two parts. We begin by talking about what the strengths of a piece are,no matter how bad a piece is, it usually has some strengths to it, and we can find something to talk about in that positive vein, saying this is what works in a story. And then we can talk about what doesn't work in a story. I think if the writer is listening, he or she can find criticism that can be useful.

In your own writing, the issue of family seems to be an important one to you. I'm thinking right now of the role that fathers play in Acid. A lot of the stories deal with violent or absent or ineffectual fathers. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Well, we write out of experience, and one of the important experiences in my life was a very tough father. And so he often gets into my stories. He was a "tough guy"; he didn't believe in expressing emotion. A lot of my youth was spent in reaction to him. In the story "Petrified Wood," for instance, the father drives across country tied into the front seat of the car. That's true. That happened.

Its your brother's sculpture,of a cathedral, I believe,on the front cover of Acid, right?

Yes. If you look closely at the photograph, you can see the outlines of the crucifix. It works nicely with the cover, because the cathedral seems to be eaten away, as if by acid, and what's left is mostly the stone itself. I'm very happy with the design of the cover. Frank's a talented artist. He's an important person to me in many ways. He was an older brother who was an artist in a working class family. My father was a house painter. Frank somehow got into music and played the drums and he played in a jazz band in Greenwich Village. I was just a little kid, and I would watch him drive away in his white MG and go off into the city to play the drums . . . Really, that's why I wanted to be an artist: I wanted to be like him. That led me eventually to language and I'm appreciative of that, because language has become so important to me. It was great to have him do the cover.


Given your family background, the rather pitiab1e father figure in "Radon" is an intriguing character. He seems paralyzed and stymied, and his interest in the gas indicates his need to pin his domestic troubles on some external source . . .

Right, that's what the story is about. I love the final image. Well, you shouldn't say you love something in your own story,but, for me, a lot of the story leads to that final image. The father and Julie and Howard are crawling around on all-fours looking like they're grazing, sealing up the basement; the mother's crying in the kitchen; and the kid's got the money he stole under the pillow, and in the back of his mind he's saying, "Why don't I feel good?" This memory is there for him, and that image works for me; that image is what the story is about. And the father is definitely a weak character. He's an invention, pretty much out of whole cloth; I don't know where he came from.

In the story "Georgla O'Keeffe, Vision," the tenderness the father has for his daughters is quite moving, a real departure from the others we've discussed. And the story itself is almost mystical, the most experimental one of the collection. What were you striving toward with this story?

Well, first of all, that's a story in which I tried to do some experimentation. What I had in mind was a story that moved around radically in tense, because I've noticed that we often do that in story-telling. We'll be talking in the present and we'll pop into the past. The listener gets the clues for where we are in the story by verbal cues, you know; we tell them "Last week I was at the park; I go to this guy and I say ... " You're in the present tense, but you know,because he told you it was last week,that you're really in the past . .

So I was doing that with this story, and it didn't work. It just didn't work on the page. You had no idea where you were and what was happening, and I wasn't comfortable with it. So I had to go back and play with it. As for the mystical, yes, it's a story which wants to suggest some of the power of the feminine in terms both positive and negative; beauty and fear and mystery, and Georgia O'Keeffe becomes the image for that. In the story, the guy has just been hurt deeply by his wife who has left him; he has his two daughters whom he wants to protect, and then there's the witches' coven down the block from him. It's a story that deals with that sense of the power of the feminine.

Its interesting, in light of that goal, to consider the apparent lack of any real, substantive relations between men. Of course there are the troubled futher/son relationships, and there is the adversarial "friendship" of Tony and Jim in "The Artist. But there seems to be a dearth of good, solid male friendships in this collection. Why would you say this is true?

I haven't thought about it, but there aren't many male/male friend, bonded characters, are there? There are friends in "Radon," but they aren't really close friends. . . Well I've been mostly the kind of guy who doesn't have those kind of strong friendships, so I guess I don't have that much experience with them. I'll go home and write a story about two friends. (Laughs)

About "The Artist": we live in a world surrounded by murder, and we live our conventional, everyday lives pretty much blocking all of that out, doing what we nced to do to live the lives that we live. If you think about that too deeply, it's a very troubling moral question. So in part I'm thinking about Jim as a character who is doing whatever he needs to do to maintain the order of his life. In this case, he's responsible for the deaths of Tony and Ellis. His rationalization might be that they were drug dealers on their way to getting killed anyway, but still he's doing what he absolutely feels he has to do to maintain the stability of his life. If he doesn't, those guys are going to pull him down. They'll disrupt the ordered life that he has made, complicate it. It's morally unjustifiable, but I think parallel to something in ordinary contemporary life.

In the South Bend Tribune, you state that one of the common threads in Acid is "the pull between a secure domestic life and walking out of that life. How do you see that being acted out in the stories?

I don't write story collections thinking of them as a collection; I write stories individually, and then when I've got a dozen of them that I like, then it's a collection. Usually they're related because I'm the guy writing them and I tend to have certain themes.... I discovered in thinking about Acid that many of the stories have at their heart this conflict between the Apollonian and Dionyssian,domesticity and frcedom, passion and restraint. Many of the stories are about characters who are torn between those two poles. Really, story aÎter story seems to be interested in that. I don't know if it was just something I was going through over the couple of years that I wrote this collection, or whether it's something more than that. But it's not exactly a new theme. The more domestic you are, the more civilized you are, the more you have to put into restraint; the more control you have to exhibit, which creates tension.

And that is something many people have noted about your writing, which is the control you exhibit, how much tension and dread and foreboding you create. At the same time, your prose balances that dread with real compassion and tenderness.

I think compassion is a matter of caring about your characters, getting inside them. There are writers like Flannery O'Connor who are not compassionate, who are very tough toward their characters. As brilliant as her stories are, I always feel that she's not . . . I always feel sort of sorry for her characters when I get through, as though she's being too hard on them.

You've mentioned your generation's optimism for the future as something that defined the generation. Do you feel that optimism was misinformed, or do you frel you are still an optimist now?

No, I think the optimism of the sixties was naive. It was a notion that a perfect world was possible; that a world where everybody could be at peace with each other was a possibility and all we had to do was love each other. That seems incredibly naive to me now in the nineties. I'm forty-seven now; I was ninetren, twenty then and I believed those things, the "Himalayan Highmindedness" of the time. The stories "Peace, Brother" and "Gifts" try to take a look at the innocence of that period, the innocence of that belief. So, yeah, there is a kind of failure that stays with me as an adult, the failure of that time; I question a lot of things about that whole generation, the way it behaved. But on the other hand, neither do I write off the entire generation as a generation of fools. It was an idealistic generation, and when you're nineteen or twenty you have the right to be naive. So I admire the idealism of the generation; I'm hurt as an adult by how utterly it failed; and I'm embarrassed by some of the excesses of it, and I sometimes try to write about those things.

How would you ansmer this question: Why write?

Write because writing is a way in which we know the world. Facts are inadequate. Writing is a way of coming to understand the emotional lives we live, which is to say the reality of the lives we live. How do we define our lives? What is your life? It's a story. And coming to explore the world we live in and story of our lives with language is important. It's important to writers as individuals, and if they do it well, it's important to others. There are so many reasons why writing is important. It's an antidote to the Disney culture that we live in. It's the cure for mass culture. . .

Does it change you to write?

Absolutely. When I'm writing well I learn things about myself. Every time I write a long prose piece, I feel like I learn something about myself. I figure something out about myself that I didn't know. And I suspect that's why I write: I'm investigating a certain thing, I'm coming to understand something. Ray Carver's story "Cathedral" is a beautiful story about writing. You can't know what a cathedral is until you participate in the making of it. And writing is a way of participating in your life, of getting under the surface of it. Otherwise you just float along. Writing is a way to stop and go down. How do I feel about my father? How do I fecl about my wife? How do I feel about my life, how do I feel about my choices, the things I've chosen to do? I only know that when I write about it. Otherwise my thoughts aren't even formed. I mean, I have thoughts, but they're too loose, they're too scattered to mean anything until I structure them. . . Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried is a brilliant book about writing. In that book there are characters who come back from the war and wind up killing themselves, but why not him? Why hasn't he? And I think his answer is, because he can tell stories. Because he can tell stories, he can keep himself alive. Without that, it would be trapped inside him and do too much damage. For some writers, writing is absolutely necessary; they're not going to make it without it. I can't imagine what my life would be like if I weren't writing.

Which form of writing do you f nd the most cathartic personally?

The novel. I seem to learn many things about myself in the process of writing a novel.

We've talked ahout some of Rolbert Olen Butler's artistic philosophy: the white-hot space of creative energy, writing from the place you dream from, etc. How does your aesthetic compare to his?

What Olen Butler is talking about is getting into the place where stories come from, which is a kind of dream-like place. John Gardner called fiction "a continuous dream." I think, as a writer, when you're doing your best writing, you are in a kind of "zone," which means getting deep inside yourself. I think every writer has a different way of getting there, of getting to that place where the best writing comes from. I do everything I can to be able to work every day. Now, I have kids, I have a job, so I can't work every day, but I try very hard; and the routine helps me get into a pattern of writing, it helps me be able to work my way into that quiet place where I do my best writing. The closer my writing time is to the time I wake up, the happier I am. I would like to get out of my bed and go down to my study and start writing. But I have responsibilities: I have to get my kids off to school. Still, as soon as I can, I get down to the basement and I start working, and I work for a couple of hours. I'm only good for a few hours; after that, I'm ready to do whatever else I have to do.