|An Interview with
by James Plath
photo & text ©James Plath,1997
As the editor of The North American Review, the nation's oldest magazine,
Robley Wilson spends much of his time reading manuscripts and taking care
of daily operations. For twenty-one years he's served as editor, and in
l979 he was awarded an Editor's Grant from the Coordinating Council of
Literary Magazines in New York. Although Wilson has also taught in the
English department at the University of Northern Iowa since l963, somehow
he's managed to find time for his own writing. Born in Brunswick, Maine
in l930, he's the author of four short story collections: The Pleasures
of Manhood (Univ. of Illinois, l977); Living Alone (Fiction International,
l978); Dancing for Men (Univ. of Pittsburgh, l983), which won the l982
Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and Terrible Kisses (Simon & Schuster,
l989). His stories have also appeared in various anthologies, including
The Pushcart Prize III , Best American Short Stories of l979, The Norton
Anthology of Short Fiction , Fiction of the Eighties: A decade of stories
from TriQuarterly, and The Ploughshares Reader: New Fiction for the Eighties
. He's an equally accomplished poet, with his first collection, Family
Matters , published by Blind Cat Press in l980. In l986 Wilson won the
Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry, for Kingdoms of the Ordinary (Univ.
of Pittsburgh, l987). Pittsburgh also published his latest collection,
A Pleasure Tree , in l990. Wilson received an MFA with Distinction from
the University of Iowa, and has given readings and lectured at more than
seventy-five universities. He's also in demand at writers' conferences.
Throughout the interview, which was conducted in a lounge at The Highlander
Inn, Iowa City, Wilson seemed at ease and open--as one might expect from
someone willing to drive an hour and a half to talk about his work.
Plath Country Author!
Q: Many people write fiction and poetry, but few are able to handle the forms equally well. And not many win major prizes in both, as you have.
A: I think writers should write everything. I don't think writers should specialize. Writers may have fondnesses . I much prefer short fiction, but on the rare occasions when I write a poem nowadays, if the poem works I'm very happy. I take pleasure from that. I even write short pieces for American College Testing. They pay big bucks for just a few words, but the words have to be very carefully tailored for it--you know, there are a lot of dos and don'ts and restrictions. But I think writers should write.
Q: If "writers should write everything," the obvious question is, why?
A: Well, why not? It goes back, I think, to one of the problems that has to do with the rise of writer's workshops--that writer's workshops have, per force, offered courses in poetry and fiction with the attitude that never the twain shall meet. In a lot of writing programs there's a downright animosity between the fiction and poetry students. I think that's silly. I think that you have to break down those boundaries. To make people into specialists, to make artists into specialists is crazy. Artists ought to be generalists, artists ought to do short stories, and novels, and poems, and screenplays, and one-acts. And if they really do one of them very, very badly, then maybe they should quit. But that should be up to them. Workshops, educational institutions, mentors ought not to be saying to them, "No, no, no. You ought to be a poet," or "You ought to be a fiction writer."
Q: Have you attempted screenplays or one-act plays?
A: I'm attempting them now, as a matter of fact. I did a screen version of "Land Fishers," which came out quite different from the story, I must confess.
Q: That's where a woman stays in her house after a flood, and encounters a father-son pair of looters--and the son rows the woman around in floodwaters so his father can ransack the place without her interfering. But how did the screen version differ?
A: In the sense that the story, of course, ends ambiguously. Nothing really happens except Nora, at the end, is depressed to discover that she has nothing worth stealing. And I tried to end the film version that way, with the father and the son, who ostensibly come to burglarize the place, going off into the sunrise. I did that draft and gave it to my agent, and he passed it on to a likely producer, and the producer called me up and said, "I assume you want to sell this script?"
Q: (laughs) You knew you were in trouble then.
A: (laughs) I said, "Yeah." And he said, "I assume you want it to be a feature, and not a made-for-television movie?" And I said, "Well, I prefer that." One of the things he said was, "You cannot end a film ambiguously. We have to tie up the loose ends for Hollywood. We haven't been able to write an ambiguous ending on a film since the 1950's out here." There were other things too: it was too short, it had the wrong title (laughs).
Q: He didn't like "Land Fishers"?
A: Well, there's a picture in production called "The Fisher King," with Robin Williams. Apparently Hollywood thinks that way. They were afraid there'd be confusion, though there's a possibility that "The Fisher King" will be changed to something else before it's released anyway, so who cares? But, I had to change the ending. And in doing so, I had to build up the subplot, which doesn't even exist in the story. And so the ending took a completely different direction. I don't know if I want to reveal it, actually, it's so bizarre. It's so bad that I thought, This isn't going to work.
Q: Does it go into areas that you would consider melodramatic?
A: Yeah, yeah. It does.
Q: So the action is forced, then, toward the end?
A: Well, I think it works, in the sense that it grows out of a situation and action that was already there. But if somebody had said, "Do a different version of this story," I wouldn't have gone to the kind of ending I went to.
Q: Was it fun, or was it painful for you? Because what I admire most about your short fiction is the subtlety.
A: It was fun, because I found myself following an idea that I thought was silly--you know, "Why am I doing this?" But to do it and then to have people say, "Yeah, this works." Interesting. Faye Dunaway has the script now. It's gotten past her two readers, and was flown to her in Jerusalem where she's making a film. And I hope she'll read it, and I hope she likes it, and I hope she finds a director or producer or studio who will be willing to feature her in it. That would be nice.
Q: In the expansion, did you discover areas that you could have explored further in the short story? That you could have made it longer, for example?
A: Oh, yeah. I learned a lot about her husband, Ray, that I hadn't had to think about in the story, because I could keep the focus on her. In the story, you never leave her. In the film version, at least in the script, you frequently leave her. You go into town, you go into the Holiday Inn where the husband is putting himself up. And you get to meet "another woman." It gets, in a way, much more complex, and in a way, more mundane, I suppose. I like the story better. I like the softness of the story much better than what seems to me a kind of relative hardness, harshness to the script. I just want to do it once, you know? I just want to see my name on the screen once. I don't have any ambition to become one of the hot properties of Hollywood.
Q: What about novels? Have you attempted that?
A: Yeah, my first novel comes out this spring. It's called The Victim's Daughter, and Simon and Schuster is doing it.
Q: Well, maybe I'll get lucky and have it sent to me for review. The last one I did for newspapers was Updike's Self-consciousness.
A: I was a rabid Updike fan back in the days of Pigeon Feathers. Stories like "Sense of Shelter," and "A&P," it seems to me, are classics of American short fiction. I thought he was wonderful. It irritated me that it often seemed to me that he was writing my life. Because every now and then I would find settings or plots that seemed taken right out of my own experience. You know, when I found out that he was a year younger than I was, I was just crushed. I didn't have a book until I was forty-seven.
Q: One of the things that struck me as I was reading your collection, Dancing for Men , in which "Land Fishers" appears--I notice that Ray Carver was the final judge. While your stories aren't exactly in the minimalist mode, there are, I think, elements of reduction. There are subtleties, nuances, things hinted at rather than stated, areas you choose to dwell on and areas you obviously choose to omit. How do you see your own work in relation to the so-called minimalist trend that was popular--and probably still is--at the writing workshops?
A: I'm not sure I know how to answer that. I've never been quite clear as to what minimalism is. I don't think of myself as a minimalist, although George Garrett once said of me that he thought I could probably do any mode that I felt like doing. And I like to think that's true. And I'm sure I've done minimalist things; it's like shifting gears.
Q: In a story like "An Inward Generation," there are moments where you really shift into a reductive mode.
Q: Well then, what do you consider minimalism? I think a lot of people think it's another overused buzzword, like "post-modernism."
A: Do I have to have a definition? We had published some Carver in The North American Review before I ever met him. I didn't meet him until after the Drue Heinz announcement. The first time was when I went to Pittsburgh to pick up the check, had breakfast with him, and spent some time with him. I liked him very much, and saw him off and on over the next few years at Iowa a couple of times when he came to give readings. He was a recommender for me when I applied for the Guggenheim in l983, and I think he was more happy than I was when I got it. I didn't really know much about short story trends. I had this book that I'd been trying to sell since the sixties with my agent, without having any luck. A lot of people read it and said, "We like it, but we want a novel first." This is in the days of the novel first. And Carver, of course, sort of broke that mold thanks to [Gordon] Lish pushing him and proving that you could make money on a short story collection, if you were in trade publishing. I think of minimalism as what comes out of The New Yorker, mostly. It's curious that by the time The New Yorker was publishing Carver, I don't think he was really doing minimalism anymore (laughs). The closer to death he got, the more--what's the word? I want to say "romantic," in a way--the more generous with language he became, the more he applied what he learned from Chekov.
Q: More emotion does creep into his work.
A: Yeah. (pause) I think of someone like Anne Beattie, who writes New Yorker stories in which you think to yourself, Well, what's the occasion for this? What's the point of this story? Except to do a story. I guess that's what I think minimalism is: sitting down and having nothing to say, but saying it anyway. And a lot of young writers do what I think of as minimalist.
Q: Trying to pass it off as Chekovian slice-of-life?
A: Yeah, yeah. And it's usually based on a fairly limited experience, because they're so young. It's always very well written. It's always "crafted"--you know? Not the way Hemingway's 250 words a day were crafted, but the way the way schools teach them to craft, I guess. I don't mean to sound so down on workshops. I mean, I taught at Iowa for a semester and enjoyed it very much, and had terrific students, and liked the people I taught with. From the teacher's side of the desk it didn't look nearly as bad, or contentious, or political as the students seemed to think it was.
Q: And from the editor's side of the desk?
A: I'm conscious of getting a lot of fiction these days that doesn't interest me, that I don't read more than two three sentences of, before I stop reading and put it back in the envelope. I'm also conscious of Iowa City postmarks, or Missoula postmarks, or any number of places, you know?
Q: How does editing a literary magazine affect your writing?
A: It doesn't help it. (laughs)
A: It takes a lot of time, even though I don't always do it well. I leave a lot of letters unanswered, or unanswered to the very last minute. Then I end up making phone calls instead of writing letters, which is not the way one should do it. And I don't take the time to work with writers whose stories almost make it. I don't have that kind of encouragement gene that I think a lot of really good editors have. We have no staff, except for a poetry editor. Between doing the magazine and teaching one course a semester, and doing my own writng, and trying to make sense out of my life--which becomes increasingly difficult, in spite of what Gail Sheehy says--everything impinges on everything else. And I think that there I times when I should be working on the next novel, or the next story collection, and I find instead that I've got to copy edit these manuscripts or they won't be in the next issue. And there has to be a next issue; they're paying me to do it, so I cannot shirk that responsiblity. But I can shirk my responsiblities to myself, and, alas, I do sometimes. I don't know if you've had that experience or not.
Q: Sure, sure. But that's a time problem. I was wondering if the act of editing, of being exposed to so many manuscripts and hopeful writers, has done anything, either positive or negative, to your own writing.
A: I don't think it's had any affect one way or the other. You know, Mark Mirsky used to say that if you read a lot of unsolicited manuscripts your brain turns to mush. I don't think that's true. I think you're brain turns to mush for lots of other reasons. It turns to mush because you watch too much television, or it turns to mush because you drink too much in the evenings, or it turns to mush because you feel guilty about what you haven't done and so you castigate yourself excessively. I don't think reading other people's manuscripts, any more than reading student work, necessarily turns your brain to mush. I just think that the time it takes is the important thing. Because if you do your writing before you've given yourself to other mundane concerns--if you get up in the morning and feed the cat and make coffee and sit right down at the keyboard--then I don't think you're corrupted by the other work you do. It's if you don't work in the morning, if you don't work before you've begun to worry about being in the right place at the right time, or being in the class, or making sure you've prepared your assignment, or making sure you have papers ready to give back, then I think you're in trouble. Because you can't come home from that and expect to be fresh. [Kurt] Vonnegut says, "Nobody is smart more than two or three hours a day." And he's quite right. I think you have to pick those two or three hours when you're smartest, to be the artist that I think we all want to be first. People say, "What are you?" Well, you have to sort of arrange a hierarchy. What are you first? Are you teacher first, or a student first, or an editor first, or a writer first, or a husband first, or a father first, or a citizen of the world? What is the order that you set up for yourself? I would like to be able to say I'm a writer first. If you do it financially, of course, you're a teacher first--or in my case, I'm an editor first, and a teacher second, and then I'm a writer.
Q: In the art world, the experimental is always a revolt against the traditional. Realism is a revolt against Romanticism, and you get all these isms that revolt against the previous ism, which sooner or later becomes the traditional, the mainstream, the standard. But in literature, the experimental never becomes the traditional; it's always the traditional versus the experimental. And I often wonder, is that because we are so tied to narrative? That it's either narrative or non-narrative?
A: Yeah, I suspect story is what's crucial--story in the old-fashioned sense of storytelling.
Q: Is that crucial to your work, from your point of view?
A: I think so, yeah. I like to think that things happen (laughs) in my fiction. There's an Ann Beattie story about a realtor who's showing a house, and when the realtor goes to the house, she has this object that she always places in the house. I guess it's considered to be like Wallace Stevens' jar in Tennessee. That jar in Tennessee orders the world around it, and this object --I can't remember now what it was, this vase or this sculpture; I think it was blue--but apparently it orders this house she is about to show these people. Well, it's nice, but it's not a story in the sense that is doesn't move from point A to point B. It starts at point A and sort of goes up like a moth and then comes back down to point A again. It's like you jumped up and touched the object, then you come back to the beginning. I'm not a very conscious artist. I don't think about how I do what I do, or what I have in mind when I start out. I like to start with an image or a line, or something I've overheard, and see where it takes me.
Q: You seem to have a natural sense for the great beginning, that quick situation, often ironic.
A: Yeah, well I preach that in my classes. I say to them, "Listen, if I got this story submitted to The North American Review, I wouldn't get past the first paragraph. If you care to get my attention, you've got to get it fast. I wouldn't make that demand of a novel. If you've been brought up to appreciate Dickens, you know that you've got to give the novel fifty, seventy-five, or a hundred pages before you start to quibble with what's happening. It seems to me that that long prologue to "Land Fishers" is one that a very close friend of mine, who's also a writer and teacher, chided me for. He said, "I don't know how you can get away with that. You're not supposed to be able to get away with that."
Q: Why did you decide to start with a lazy description of the flooding, rather than picking up the action from the point where Nora's lying in bed in her house, for example, and she hears a noise downstairs?
A: Oh, I wanted all that water.
Q: But it's a novelistic beginning.
A: It is, yeah. And the screenplay even begins more so. I mean, the screenplay begins while the credits are running, way way way up in Minnesota where the rivers are just beginning to swell from the rains up there. And so for as long as it takes to run the credits, the camera is going to be showing you ever widening, ever more muddying water, until you arrive in the town where Nora lives. And you see barnyard animals stranded on hillocks surrounded by water, and golf courses whose flags barely protrude above the water, and parks where the benches are inundated up to their backs. I really wanted the atmosphere, and I wanted, I guess--God, I hadn't really thought about this--looking back on it, I guess I wanted Nora to be a very small and forlorn figure in the midst of this vastness of water. Her last name is Swan, you know. Maybe it's a cinematic thing. Maybe in my heart of hearts I've always wanted to write for the movies--although I know that's not true, because I've learned so much from doing three or four scripts. I know I'm not a natural cinematographer.
Q: To me, though, it was not as cinematic as it was metaphorical. There are times when I see your fiction operating the same way as a political or social commentary cartoon, where you take a concept--something that is happening in everyday life--and then draw a metaphor which would illustrate it. In "Wasps," for example, an infestation in a woman's home parallels a useless, live-in lover she has taken out of insecurity: another pest. And in "Paint," the husband's literal painting of the house keeps his wife from entering, which foreshadows her being locked out by him emotionally as well.
A: Well, I think I learned a lot about fiction from writing poetry. In the sixties, I wrote very few short stories, and was publishing a lot of poetry, and really thought of myself as a poet. I think that I carried over into my fiction writing a lot of what I think I learned from writing poetry, about the controlling metaphor, you know? The single image which dictated the whole poem. So that I think a story like "Paint" or a story like "Wasps," or in the new collection, a story like the title story, "Terrible Kisses," takes off from a particular image and just milks that image--as "Paint" does. I didn't know what was going to happen with "Wasps," in the same way that in an early collection I didn't know what was going to happen at the end of a story called "The Apple." And that's a little scary, and maybe fun, to get inside a story and suddenly say to yourself, "I don't know how the fuck this is going to turn out," (laughs) "I don't know how I'm gonna get out of this." And the pleasure is in finding a way. It's a compounded pleasure when a reader can say, "Yeah, this had to be that way, had to be that way."
Q: While many writers seem to concern themselves with purely sexual relationships--and as an editor you probably see this too, and wonder, "Are there any relationships in this society other than lovers?"--your stories always seem to offer additional complexities or significant variations, even in those that deal with males and females. Sexual dynamics don't seem to impinge on your stories as blatantly as they do in other writers.
A: Oh, I think it's all sexual dynamics.
A: God, yeah. Give me for instance.
Q: All right, in "Land Fishers," the sexual tension between the boy and Nora begins when she comes downstairs. One of the first things she's conscious of is the fact that she's more concerned with the house than with her own safety--which again implies that, of course, she should be concerned with her own safety.
A: Yeah . . . .
Q: When she's taken by the hand those last few stairs, there's an element of force that's suggested. But when she offers her hands to the young boy in the boat and he pulls her alongside, any sexual action only ends up being in her mind, an imagined threat. What finally emerges is a relationship that's non-sexual, or even asexual.
A: Yeah, but the sexual tension is still there. Nothing comes of it, but it's still there. I think my subject is couples, and I think that whenever you're dealing with couples, whether its male/female, or--the only story I've ever written which wasn't a male/female, was female/female, in the new collection, called "Silent Partners"--there is always an underlying sexual tension, which I find in life, too. Students used to think I was crazy, because I remember saying to a freshman class once, a long time ago, "When you get your change from the girl at the check-out counter, notice how she puts the change in your hand. Does she just drop it? Does she put it in your hand so that her fingetips touch your palm? When she takes her hand away, does she take it away without touching you further, or does she sort of let her fingers touch your fingers?" They looked at me like I was crazy, and I said, "You know, this is the fundamental sexuality in the world we live in. Everything is this." And I'd like to think that's in the stories too. Now you're telling me it's not there?
Q: I'm saying it's so subtle that our attention is drawn to other areas as well. In "Wasps," certainly there's a sexual tension present, but it's so unspoken and internalized that we begin to wonder if it was nothing more than some sort of Freudian wishful thinking on the narrator's part, or paranoia.
A: Well, yeah, it's true that it's rare that something happens. It's true in my own life that it's rare that something happens. But there's always this kind of male/female dance that we do.
Q: Of possibilities?
A: Yeah. There are always possibilities, even though you know the possibilities aren't really going to become realities. In "Wasps" there is that sexual tension between the woman and the exterminator, and in fact she even thinks about the possibility--this is after the young man has mysteriously vanished--that there may be some connection between herself and the exterminator, although in point-of-fact she doesn't know whether the woman who answered the phone at the exterminator's house was his wife or not.
Q: But you show different facets of relationships. The division between males and females--the things that set them apart or turn them against each other --involve more than simple sexual dynamics.
A: Maybe what I'm really writing about--I never thought about this before-- are the ways in which we sublimate the sexual tensions, and how many different ways there are. I had a good friend a long time ago who eventually became a suicide. And I remember him saying to me once, "You know, the trouble is that you cannot have every pretty girl you see." And I sometimes think that is why he killed himself. That while he could intellectually realize that it's true--you can't go through life like a satyr, for God's sake, running rampant over every sweet young thing that comes down the pike--he so much wished it could be the other way that he simply couldn't cope with it. Now that's an oversimplification. I mean, he was a guy who was very talented, and had a very complicated childhood, and had very real psychological and mental problems. But I do think that at the back of every man's mind is the wistful sense of "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if you could have every pretty girl you see." It's Robert Cray singing, "So Many Women, So Little Time," you know? Well, nobody goes through life like that.
Q: You're talking about "having women" now from a purely male sexual perspective--which might raise a few feminist hackles--but I think you handle the female point of view quite well, quite sympathetically in your stories.
A: Some people tell me that; some people tell me I don't. I don't know who to believe. I was once asked why I wrote so many stories from the female point of view, and I said it was because a lot of the effects that I try for in my stories are so subtle that you wouldn't believe them if it happened from the point of view of a man.
Q: Interesting point.
A: Yeah, that's probably sexism with reverse English. It's probably true that men are as capable of subtle emotions as women, but they have been taught to keep them to themselves.
Q: Why are your stories so subtle? Why do they have a soft rather than a hard edge?
A: I think as a writer I'm much too careful with language, and that's a flaw as often as it is a virtue. And I think it's why I'm so good at beginnings, and so poor at endings--that I'm not a risk-taker the way some people, some writers, are risk-takers. I'm not flamboyant in my writing, or in my life, for that matter. I'm not an attention-gettter.
Q: Did you take more risks in the screenplay of "Land Fishers."
A: I'm sort of on the peripherary. I've never sold a screenplay, I've never seen anything of mine made into screenplay. I only know from what other people tell me, how different it is. It's not just a collaboration, its a kind of battleground between writers and studios and directors and actors. So I have no idea how "Land Fishers" would come out if it were ever brought to the screen. I happen to think that my first draft, which the producer who read it thought was much too literary, was a better script than the one that he thought had a better chance of being made, you know? It occurs to me that the films made by Hollywood companies, whether large or small, that win the awards are films which tend to break the rules that everybody tells you you have to follow. So I don't know what would happen. (pause) I've had people tell me that I write much too carefully--that I'm therefore dull. (laughs)
Q: (laughs) I don't know, I'd argue with that. But a writer is always making decisions, and I'm curious about your own decision-making process. Why was it the boy that had to keep the woman busy, adrift in a rowboat while the father ransacked the house?
A: Because I'm your father, I'm running the show, and I'm telling you what to do. It's as simple as that.
Q: Wouldn't the story change drastically if the father were the one in the boat with her?
A: Well, then it would become a much less subtle story if the father, who is a man in his forties, simply lusted after this woman he found alone in the house. Then it becomes what? It becomes a rape story. Kid, you ransack the house while I take this woman out to the boat and screw her. That's not my kind of story (laughs), I don't think. Or maybe something in me said, "No, this is a better scene if the woman and the boy are alone together. Because Nora, after all, is suffering from what is conventionally called "empty nest" syndrome, right? Here I am, a woman in her forties whose children have grown up and flown away, "What am I good for?" And here is a woman who is going to be confused in her feelings toward a younger man: between what might on his part be an ordinary sexuality, but what on her part is going to be complicated by maternal feelings, because he reminds her of her own children. And ultimately that complication is going to pass itself on to him, and he's going to see her as a mother-figure. And they're both going to be aware of the taboo, which has to be, so that the sex has to be sublimated. And so we come close, but we don't do it. And we don't do it because we realize we're under the influence of cannabis.
Q: As I first read this story, it reminded me of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," where The Misfit, an escaped murderer, engages the grandmother in conversation. It's almost like what they call hostage syndrome, where a victim or hostage draws close to the kidnapper. Was that an influence at all?
A: Yeah. If you're forced by somebody to do something, you make the best of it, and you would talk to them. You try to humanize them, to treat them as if you were two human beings and not captor/captive, or hostage/kidnapper. And apparently psychologists say that's the way you should be handling it. That you have to make these people remember that they're human beings, and not automatons holding sub-machine guns, or what have you. So generically, I suppose what Flannery O' Connor does in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" in the dialogue between the murderer and the grandmother comes form the same source. I don't think you feel the kind of threat in my stories that you do in Flannery's, but then I'm a Unitarian, and she was a Catholic--and there's a profound difference in one's attitude toward sin and evil, and what bad things mean in the world.
Q: Is that also responsible for the way that your characters relate to one another, in terms of their expressiveness or level of affection? Your characters generally do not express themselves in anything that approaches passion.
A: Well, that's my upbringing. That's my father, really, I'm sure. My father was a very reserved person, a schoolteacher--not an affectionate man, not to me, not to my mother. I don't think I saw my parents embrace half a dozen times in all the time that I was growing up. My mother was a very gentle and affectionate woman, who lavished all that affection on me. I don't think she quite knew how to approach my father. I don't think he was approachable, really. He was a perfectionist. He was a man who, except when he went to graduate school, never left the town he was born in. He was the oldest of three brothers, and he was the one who lived with his mother until just before she died. I was brought up in my grandmother's house. She was a woman I hated, and she didn't think much of me either. She treated my mother like a servant, and my father never interceded on my mother's behalf. I won't say that he always took my grandmother's side, but he certainly was more sensitive to his mother's needs than to his wife's, until--I suppose I was twelve or thirteen years old--my mother laid down the law and said to him, "Either you get us a place of our own away from this woman, or I'm leaving you." I didn't know any of this at the time. I know this after the fact, from talking to aunts. So we moved to a place where we were a family on our own. We moved to an upstairs apartment a mile away from my grandmother's house. And within a matter of months, my grandmother was dead--of fire. An accidental death. She was in her eightes, and--I wrote a poem about this, as a matter of fact, a long time ago--she was making a fire in the pot-bellied stove in the cellar, which was how we heated water in the hot water heater. If you wanted to take a bath, you had to make a special trip. You took the wastebaskets down from the kitchen. Then you used that, then you put kindling on top of that. She always wore a shawl, and the shawl took fire, and she burned to death. I have no idea what that must have done to my father; he must have connected his leaving her alone with her death, and probably felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. And I have no idea how that affected his relationship with my mother,because so little passed between them, (laughs) you know? And here was I, the only child, thrown in between them. Getting love from my mother, and discipline from my father.
Q: So the tenuous ways in which your characters connect to each other is more a personal reflection, rather than a cultural one?
A: Yeah, I suspect it is. And I suspect that maybe one of the things that I do when I write a story that deals with this sort of relationship, in which a lot is implicit and very little is explicit, I'm probably using the stories as therapy. You know, I'm saving myself eighty bucks an hour (laughs).
Q: Nora thinks, at one point, "It was eerie how the evidences of happy memories were incomplete. How parts of the past were always missing." Is that the way it is with your stories, do you think? That there are always parts of the past missing?
A: That's a hard question. I suppose parts of the past are always missing in all our lives. It's called nostalgia.
Q: Most writers are nostalgic, though, and I think a lot of them tend to be collectors, too, because of that very same fascination with the past: needing anchors, or seeing value in older things, rather than disposable things. I'm always amazed to visit a writer's house and see the things that have been deemed saveable or collectable.
A: Yeah, I'm a little bit that way, I guess. Oddly enough, my father was a saver of the strangest sort. When he finally went into a nursing home and when I closed up his apartment, the stuff that I found! He'd saved cancelled checks from the 1940's. What on earth for? It was like walking into the past.
Q: Your stories often have a thread from the past running parallel to a current action. In "Artists and Their Models," you link a man's unnatural interest in photographing and sketching his lover to her own shadowy past, where her father entered her bedroom without knocking. You know, you can't get any more subtle or quiet than that. There's a subtle, sexual violation in both cases, and it's the parallel that makes it powerful--the poetic technique of establishing a metaphor or parallel, and then fleshing it out. You even seem to use a great many comparisons to help delineate your characters' emotional states.
A: When I first started writing fiction--this would've been back in high school--I would use three or four comparisons at a time. And one of my teachers, when I finally went to college said, "You know, you don't have to say it over and over again (laughs). Usually once is enough. Certainly twice is sufficient." So I cut back. But the parallels would have been like claw marks, earlier on. It may be that one of the reasons I think writers who go to workshops should do fiction and poetry and whatever else, is that you learn from the different genres. Maybe that's the pedagogical reason I'm saying this. I certainly learned a lot about fiction from writing poetry, and I think I learned a lot about poetry from doing fiction. And I think if you look at poems by people like Stephen Dobyns, for example, whose poems are more and more narrative--and Dobyns, of course, writes novels, and quite succesfully. He writes mystery novels for the most part--I think that he's learned from the sort of narrative you do in prose fiction, and brought what he's learned over to the poetry, so that you get wonderful poems like the one about the dog, in Cemetery Nights. Maybe because I began writing poetry first, my best endings tend to be accidental. If I know ahead of time what the ending's going to be, there's a fifty-fifty chance that it won't really be very successful--that it will be weak, that the story itself may be interesting, but it won't have the perfect ending. One would always like to have the perfect ending.
Q: Isn't that American, though, to want the perfect ending? Something cultural?
A: Gee, I don't know. You mean like "the happy ending," like the American Dream, like all these idealisms? I'm certainly an idealist, and I'm certainly a romantic with a capaital "R". And I certainly don't like the world as I find it. Maybe it's cultural. I'm from New England, an only child who had a perfectionist father and a mother who, I think, married her second choice. Unitarian: Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of Man, Neighborhood of Boston, and all those things that people say about Unitarians. (Pause) You know, we are those environments. We don't escape them. But we also don't quite climb completely out of the gene pool, either. There's a lot of my father in me. There are a lot of things about myself that I don't like, that seem intractible, incorrigable--like my own perfectionism, which leads me to be critical of waiters and clerks.
Q: And your own stories?
A: Yeah, sometimes my own stories. Although, in general, I don't look back. I look back on the poetry because it took me so long to get a book of poems. I finally got a book of poems in '87, but almost every poem in the book was written before 1970. And the second book came out this year. Every poem in that book was written before 1973. And I have another book, consisting mostly of poems written in the sixties and early seventies that I hope will get published. That's why I quit writing poetry: I couldn't get a book, and I said, "The hell with it. I can't compete with whatever this establishment is." I mean, I didn't know what you had to do to be a succesful poet. Did you have to go to the right school? Did you have to publish in magazines different from the ones I published in? I had no idea what the secret was, and so I thought, Well, I really prefer fiction anyway, so I went back to it. And then too, in '68-'69 I became editor of the magazine, and that began to eat up time. It's odd that even though poems take up less space, they require a different kind of concentration. So maybe I would have quit writing poetry anyway, because you can go back to prose and pick up where you left off. Sometimes you go back to an unfinished poem and you think, "What in the hell? Why was I doing this? What was the point?" You can't recover it. It's like the Muse says, "If you can't spend the whole night with me, forget it." (Laughs) It's crazy.
Q: So many of your stories are based on non-connection, rather than connection--close calls. Has your latest collection departed from that?
A: I think not. If anything, the subject matter is the same, but it's treated even more subtly, in a way. Of course, the characters get older as I've gotten older. There's now a story called "Feature Presentations," in which a man and a woman in their sixties are travelling with their granddaughter, a nine-year-old girl. And the man--from whose point of view the story is told--is upset by the fact that he finds himself strangely attracted to this young girl, almost as if it were a sexual attraction. In fact, at dinner they put the child to bed, and they leave her and to go off to the restaurant to have a late supper. And he says to his wife, "There must be something wrong with me, because I look at her as a sort of a miniature woman, and I feel a curious sort of attraction to her." He says, "Is there something wrong with me?" She says, "No, you're not used to young girls nowadays who are nine years old, going on thirty," and says it's perfectly normal for him. But he's not so sure. Later there's a scene in which the nine year old is getting ready for bed and he is all caught up in the actual death of one of his uncles, and the terminal illness--which he's just found out about--of one of his favorite aunts. And he looks at this granddaughter and says, "Wouldn't it be curious if the angel of death turned out to be a golden-haired little girl with perfect teeth." So I suppose that the sexual tension has now become a kind of mortal tension. Much more than the earlier stuff.
Q: No wonder Updike speaks to you.
A: I suppose. I think that even though he comes from a quite different religious background, in Pennsylvania, that there's a kind of Puritan commonality that we share.
Q: The fact that your stories are getting more subtle, is that an indication that perhaps subtlety has always been not just a trait, but an aesthetic goal?
A: Maybe, since I can't do flamboyance (laughs). But we do what we do best. I've just gone through a divorce, and even though for years and years I've written about characters who are either estranged, separated, or divorced, this is the first time in my life that I've been in that postition. So maybe I've done a lot of foreshadowing over the last twenty years. You know, I haven't done any short fiction for quite a while. I've been finishing up this novel, I've started another one, and I've been doing screenplays. But I want to get back to short fiction. It will be interesting to see what happens. I already know what the first story's going to be. It's going to be a story about a man who gets a call from his ex-wife, and she says, "Come over to the house. I want to talk to you." And it turns out that she's going to tell him that his father has died, because the hospital had the old phone number and didn't know how to get in touch with him, and called her. So she's the one who announces his father's death. And that's how it begins. I have no idea where it's going to go. Should be fun.
James Plath 9-6-90
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