An interview with William H. Gass, conducted by Greg Gerke in 2012.
In his works of fiction, William H. Gass creates worlds where the characters try to find their way amid inhumanity and where language honors equally the horror and the beauty of life. But as impressive as these works of fiction are, they make up only a part of Gass’s immense contribution to arts and letters. He’s also a distinguished essayist and critic, author most recently of the collection Life Sentences and of such now-canonical books as Fiction and the Figures of Life and Reading Rilke. His subjects vary but the work is always richly observed, emotionally acute, and at the same time playful—full of wisdom and the uncanny understanding of a man who taught philosophy for fifty years. A William H. Gass topic could be an examination of the word and, a lecture on metaphor, an examination of lust, a philosophical treatise on the color blue—and that’s not to mention the book reviews that are always more than mere summary, branching into the deepest questions of language and being.
The essays and fiction are part of the same “writing problem.” As an artist, Gass is dedicated to the most basic elements of language: words and sentences—the bones, blood, and flesh of writing. Every sentence tells a story and he has made it his duty to construct each with great attention to its poetic and rhythmic qualities, with such alliterative gambits as “Why should another’s body be so beautiful its absence is as painful as the presence of your own?” from The Tunnel, and these crisp bits of economy from the essay “The Soul Inside the Sentence”: “Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.”
Last October I visited Bill Gass in St. Louis, Missouri, near Washington University, where he taught for thirty years and founded the International Writer’s Center, which later became the Center for the Humanities. Bill and his wife, Mary, warmly welcomed me into their opulent space dedicated to art and containing a library that now numbers over twenty thousand books. After talking to Bill during a celebration of Elizabeth Bishop at the university the afternoon before, I spent most of a Monday at his home, capped by a wonderful dinner with him and his wife. I asked everything I could, but mostly, all I had to do was listen.
GREG GERKE: You are known both as an essayist and a writer of fiction. In your work, one medium seems to inform the other: The Tunnel contains some mini-essays and bits of fictional situations make their way into the essays. Do you view both in the same terms? Is one more important to you than another?
WILLIAM H. GASS: I think in one sense, the fiction’s what matters most to me. But in composing them, my attention is the same for both genres. Sometimes the boundary between the two is better kept a boundary. The essays are the pieces that are likely to veer off into the perimeters. But I’ve always just thought of them both as writing chores. The main thing that’s different is—and it’s important—the essays have a reason to be written, they were called for; and the fiction has no reason to be written. It was not called for. The essays always have a deadline. So they get written. Whereas the fiction doesn’t have a deadline, and so it doesn’t get written. Fiction allows me—because there are no expectations, there is no job to fulfill—to be more outrageous, or daring, or whatever you want to call it.
GG: “Hate finds nothing hard,” you write in Omensetter’s Luck. And in an interview in the Paris Review you said, “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” Can you talk about this agent called “hate”? Is hate what gets things done in the world?
WHG: Of a certain sort, I think it certainly does. It involves intellectual dislike. There’s the visceral passion that puts someone’s head on a pike, but intellectual hate is Swiftian. I mean, Swift hated how mankind behaves. I hate the species too, but I like people. I don’t have trouble with people. It’s the kind of thing that makes you throw down the New York Times in disgust after you’ve read about some other horrible business that’s going on, you know. It’s that kind of anger, and that kind of anger lasts well. There is, of course, the very personal anger too. When you’re trying to get started in the writing business, you want to do something new, but no one wants what you write, and you keep getting rejected. I spent eight years hearing the thud of my manuscripts on the porch. I couldn’t even get a letter to the editor published. Nothing. And you get frustrated and mad at the literary world, and the people who support mediocrity and call it excellence. And that involves your pride and all the rest of vanity’s baggage. As you get more successful, that anger doesn’t diminish much, because you know philistines are always there, but you are softened by a little success, and it’s harder for you to say—it’s harder for me now to say—“hate wrote it,” though nobody pays any attention to me. Nobody does, but it’s a different kind of being ignored, you know? So those things change over time. Some people have the bad luck to be received and applauded right away. That’s usually going to turn out badly, because the second book or the third one is just going to get slapped around. The early bird genius will be very unhappy. So my anger is many-layered. It continues to annoy me that writers whom I admire are still on the margin. My fiction’s still on the margin. It is still refused.
GG: Do you think it’s good that nothing comes easily to a writer?
WHG: For me, yeah. But everybody’s different. When your first novel fills your plate with praise, then you’re inclined to repeat yourself. You don’t set the bar higher. I think the great writers and fine artists in general, as they get older, they set the bar higher, and sooner or later they will fail. Finnegan’s Wake doesn’t come first. Dubliners comes first. Dubliners is almost extraordinary as it fits in the course of Joyce’s development. It wasn’t thought to be so fine when it came out, though. Finally Joyce finishes Finnegans Wake. You know, what is he going to write next? Same way with Beckett and other experimenters like them. The writer ought to age like wine. Think of Beethoven quartets. The later music gets more complex and difficult, but better. James’s early novels are beautiful, but the late novels are challenging, and that’s because even a professional writer like James doesn’t want to write the same damn thing year after year. He wants to see something else is opening up as a possibility. You can want to arrive at glory too fast. I think Malcolm Lowry had that trouble. He wanted to change the novel and the short story overnight. Lowry’s Through the Panama is boring in many places, but it is also extraordinarily inventive. Once you can knit ninety miles an hour, you want to go one hundred. Otherwise, you just start repeating. My new novel is so simple compared to The Tunnel. But I had to do something different. Nope, I didn’t want the same kind of complexity at all. The late work of the most successful artists I know is their best.
GG: I’ve always been interested in how great artists rarely comment on their peers, or only on some of them. I know you have celebrated many of yours, such as William Gaddis, John Barth, Stanley Elkin, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, and Alexander Theroux—and those are only the Americans. I wonder if I could get your viewpoint on a few celebrated writers of English that I haven’t heard you talk about. J. M. Coetzee would be one.
WHG: Oh, yeah. Well, there are certain writers that I don’t talk about because they have problems with me and I have problems with them. One of the best pieces written about my book on Rilke [Reading Rilke]—which is, indeed, highly critical of me—is Coetzee’s essay. He’s smart, he did his job, and stated his opinion. But I can’t write about him now. It will suddenly look as if I’m justifying myself. He says some things that are quite wrong. Factual things. But you know the passage of a fierce intelligence over your work is much to be desired. Some of my pieces are only celebratory. I mean, they’re for pals of some sort. You don’t speak of reservations. Stanley Elkin used to say, “It’s impossible to write something about my books that I like. No praise is sufficient.” You know, if you write something about someone you know and love—that doesn’t mean you like everything they write, but are you going to go around speaking of shortcomings? You won’t have friends. John Gardner learned that. And he couldn’t win. I understand Barth was infuriated by Gardner’s treatment. Hawkes was also infuriated because he wasn’t mentioned. What can you do? I swore a while back that I’d only write about books I liked. And I stopped writing about anyone alive. Then I wrote about a writer I had written unfavorably about a couple times, Roth. He wrote, I thought, a terrific book, The Counterlife, which I reviewed enthusiastically. But suppose I hadn’t liked it. Why write some pie-in-the-face essay on Updike? I was critical of him when I was younger and still mad. And then I realized that the man I was mad at was not Updike, who was a true gentleman and a good critic and so forth, but the mediocre level of writing his critics carried on about. But it’s easy to be asked to write something about Jack Hawkes if you just get to talk about the sentences. It’s fun. I think it is wise to stay away from an honest critique of people that you like who are still alive. Knut Hamsun I detest, but he’s dead. So I don’t write about them. I wouldn’t have written about any of those people normally, but they asked me to write the preface to their book, so out of friendship I wrote the preface, or something. I wouldn’t write about Stanley and make him mad unless he had asked me to. I’d much rather write about Colette, so I can say what I want. And she wrote a lot of slush. Most writers do.
GG: Any thoughts on Sebald?
WHG: I haven’t read him. I read about ten pages. That wasn’t fair to him. But I could see the rush of this wave of popularity that is almost a death knell. So I’m gonna have to go back sometime when the critical flimflam has calmed down and see. Sometimes these fads are actually very good. Actually, I don’t believe that. I’m very arrogant about my judgment. I don’t make mistakes. But I need to take a hard look.
GG: Is that the case with Foster Wallace too?
WHG: He had great abilities. I think he needed to tame them. I think he was so good that he should’ve wanted to be better. And he wrote some things that are going to stay around. I wish he had stayed around and done more of that. He had lots of smarts too. He was also popular with the college crowd. Not a good sign. But he knew his math and philosophy. A good sign. Pynchon’s a similar case. He didn’t die; he just disappeared. I have tried to read Pynchon with no success so far, but then, I can’t read Whitman—I try. Some of us have blank spots. We can’t like everything, and I don’t see any rule requiring it. Why should you love every woman who walks by?
GG: In your fiction there is a great interest in insects. In “Order of Insects,” a woman dwells on cockroaches. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” and “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop” both contain wonderful sections on flies, and The Tunnel has an extended section on grasshoppers. It seems you have spent some time contemplating them. There is also a rich history of writers using them, as Donne has his flea, Yeats his fly, and Beckett gives Molloy some dancing bees. What draws you to insects? What makes them such a fitting metaphorical subject for writers?
WHG: I used to study them for fun. Sweet companions. We had a downstairs john, and there was a little crack in its window, and there was this spider who spun his web in the window next to the john. I would sit myself down, breathe upon the web, watch him, and he would come out. And we would have a discussion.
GG: This was when you were a boy?
WHG: No. Forty-some years ago. When I was living in this little town, I got to know the bats, which I’m very fond of, and the spiders. But then I had a pet butterfly. This monarch. And it got hurt on a highway. That is, I’m assuming the draft of a car broke a wing as it was flying, and so it couldn’t fly up. It could flutter around. I found it, and I carried him in, fed him, and he would come and sit on my shoulder, and I would feed him on the counter up in the kitchen, just honey and sugar water. He would come down and drink. We’d put him on a vase to sit upon the flowers. We had him for about six weeks. And at night, I’d put him on top of a curtain. But we had a cat. And that was a problem, keeping the cat from getting that damn butterfly. And eventually, she did. But with the kids, we used to find larvae and then watch them hatch, and read a lot of naturalist stuff. Yesterday, we had out here on top of the pool cover—right in the middle, where there’s some collected water—we had a red-shouldered hawk. Stood in the middle of that puddle and washed his feathers. And this morning we heard the song of the white-throated sparrow, which signifies winter coming. This is a great trunk line for migratory birds, all the way up the Mississippi, and people go out just to watch the eagles at migration time. Tremendous. Ducks come swim in our pool. Geese. And there’s a park here that bird-watchers go crazy in, because it has so many different kinds of birds in there all the time. When I was a kid it wasn’t insects; it was snakes.
GG: In On Being Blue, you say, “A muff, a glove, a stocking, the glass a lover’s lips have touched, the print of a shoe in the snow; how is it that these simple objects can receive our love so well that they increase it?” Your answer is because they become concepts, while the body of the beloved alters and “escapes our authority and powers.” Do we trust objects more than people?
WHG: I certainly do. Spinoza did. “Love ideas,” he said. There was one of these terrible TV shows where they were dissecting bodies. And the guy says, “This is the time when the body tells the truth.” And in a sense, that’s so. But it’s worse. Consciousness. There are people whose everyday consciousness may be just awful, but who create a consciousness, a way of seeing things, that is great in itself. Emerson was on the right track, I think, at one point during the end of his life when he was disillusioned, that what philosophy is all about is to provide structures for the various emotions and feelings—he calls them moods—about the world. And they’re all true at some times, because they describe our relationship to our surroundings. And there are days when you are in a Schopenhauer mood, and everything seems the way it is that day. But you’re not, in the normal course of life, aware of all this stuff. You’re just taking out the garbage. The only thing wrong with getting old too is you have to watch where you’re walking, not because you want to see what’s there but because you don’t want to fall down. It’s preoccupying. I’m talking about the garbage. But again, when I was photographing, I photographed garbage. And sometimes it was a rotten watermelon—wow! Rotten! Beautiful!
GG: Concerning the history of Omensetter’s Luck, there is the infamous episode of one Edward Drogo Mork (a fellow teacher, but more a con artist) who stole the only copy of the manuscript from your office in Purdue. He tried to publish parts of it as a play, but was found out. In the afterword of Omensetter’s Luck, you say you may still carry his murder in your heart. Was this sordid episode instrumental in your new novel, Middle C, which concerns a professor coming from Europe to a university in Ohio to teach a subject he’s not qualified in?
WHG: Not really, even though its principal figure also teaches at a college. The new book, though, is based more on an actual event. When I first started to earn my living in the world, I was teaching at a college called Wooster, in Ohio. And there arrived on the campus one day an Englishman who taught history. The officials had hired him. He was charming, and had huge audiences for his classes. He’d been there about two or three months when the authorities came around and said, “This guy is a fake, a bigamist, and his name is Peters, and he’s wanted by the English and the Canadian police.” And everybody was shocked, because everyone had made him over as such a brilliant man and so forth. That was all that actually happened, but I thought, Well, I want to talk about—or deal with—somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort. Professor Skizzen obtains his positions with false CVs—he’s a decent enough person, really—but he gradually expands his dreamland to include the classes he starts to teach. The book says a lot about the academic world, because it partly covers when he is a student in a school, as well as when he ends up a music teacher. As a fraud, he’s better than most genuine people. Eventually he creates in his attic a museum of human catastrophes. “The Inhumanity Museum,” he calls it. So he’s doing that, but that’s it (like my other novels, this is a book in which nothing happens). In addition he has an obsession, a sentence he’s trying to get straight, and it never seems to go together right.
GG: One sentence?
WHG: One sentence. And it is something to the effect of “He”—or somebody—“used to be concerned about the fate of the human race, and that it might be destroyed. Now he’s worried that it won’t be.” It’s a much lighter book than my others. There’s a lot of talk about Schoenberg because Skizzen pretends—when he goes to this Ohio college-town college—he pretends to be a Schoenberg specialist, because nobody knows much about Schoenberg. They hate Skizzen, but they’re worried about it. So he can get away with it. And that’s why he picks Schoenberg. He doesn’t really like Schoenberg.
GG: Did you ever write longhand?
WHG: Oh, no. My parents got me a typewriter when I was, I think, fourteen. An Underwood portable. And I kept it for years. I didn’t go to a computer until 1990. I went to California. The Getty Museum. And they said, ”What kind of computer do you want to use?” It was a wonderful place.
GG: It was a sabbatical?
WHG: I was invited to go there to do research. I had been writing on architecture. And I think that’s what they expected me to be doing. But they were very happy to accommodate my plans. There’s nothing like having a patron that has six billion dollars. I went out there with six hundred pages of The Tunnel done. And I wrote the second half of the book there in one year, because the circumstances were just marvelous. No distractions.
GG: You needed that to finish it?
WHG: I had been bottling up. It was also easier, because the last part of the book was supposed to be easier to get a hold of than the first part. And I had a marvelous assistant whom my work didn’t require. I had a poor guy who was there trying to be helpful. He was doing his own work, but he was a fellow, so he was supposed to be of service. He got us tickets to symphonies and got me in with the Lannan people who were out there—they supported marvelous readings. That was a big help for me later. And I found out I could just work nonstop. There was nothing else to do except that. And so the book doubled. And the secretaries took my typescript and transferred all of it, spacing and everything else, onto the machine. They did it in off-hours, or when they weren’t busy. It was a terrific job, a difficult job, and they were wonderful. So I had that. Now and then, gifts fall from the sky. Not just calamities.
GG: So you wrote the book pretty much sequentially?
WHG: Yeah, not entirely, but close.
GG: Because it does seem there’s fewer of the drawings and the boldface and different fonts in the second half of the book.
WHG: I wanted to move away from that—to leave Kohler’s (the main character in The Tunnel) diddling behind. I also wrote some sections of the front part and then deliberately broke them up, scattered pieces, and rearranged them. But for the back part I didn’t do that.
GG: Do you edit by reading aloud?
WHG: All the time. Everything. Over and over and over.
GG: All of The Tunnel? You read the whole thing out loud?
WHG: Every step of the way. Oh yeah, many times. The same way I had to read more than once Elizabeth Bishop’s The Moose so I could recite it. The reader’s eye goes too fast. Bishop’s a slow boat really, because you have to put a lot of weight on every word. I remember, when I was teaching her, I’d have to say, “Whoa! Slow down.” It had partly to do with her compulsion with the facts. Had to have all the facts just right. She fitted the New Yorker just perfectly, because the New Yorker is staffed with nothing but niggardly fact-checkers. “Do flowers really bloom in New Brunswick in October?” And she’d run off and consult old issues of magazines to justify her mentioning them and quoting from them or something, as in “In the Waiting Room.” I’m talking about the National Geographic details.
GG: When thinking about the differences between so-called language-driven writers and story-driven writers, I’ve almost come to understand (at the same time reading that you espoused, “You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished”), that story is always implicit in the language-driven writers’ works, the story takes care of itself. What we get in King Lear, The Lime Twig, and The Portrait of a Lady is a miasma of color and sound; the world is all things, no matter if description or dialogue. Do you feel the implicitness of story as you write? Or do the prose rhythms press you into those areas?
WHG: Sometimes. Actually, you have a little story even in a sentence. For me, formally, the sentence is a narrative made by the linear progression of words. I have to read the words that way. Then with my mind, I am bringing back everything in the predicate to the subject and making the modifications that each part of it has made to the larger context: the sentence or paragraph or whatever it is. And then it’s the narration that gets complicated, because narration at that level only begins with “Shall I put Goliath first in ‘David slew Goliath,’ or shall I say, ‘Goliath was slain by David’?” Grammarians aren’t going to help you there, because they think that the passive voice is, first of all, weak. But why weak? They don’t even know. And they don’t see the tremendous difference between those two sentences. They tell different stories. Which comes first, David’s good luck or Goliath’s demise? It’s obvious whose side you’re on. I have, in Life Sentences, an essay on narrative sentences. All sentences are narrations in the sense that when you drop a word into the ongoing sentence, add on a phrase or some circumlocution, you delay the final meaning. James loves to hold you in suspense as he goes on with his lists and his subjunctive clauses. Or you can withhold the real subject by putting it in the rear, like the Germans often do their verbs.
GG: In Life Sentences, in the essay called “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence,” you quote Wallace Stevens as saying, “Those of us who understand that words are thoughts and not only our own thoughts but the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what it is that they are thinking, must be conscious of this: that, above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds.” Again and again, one hears so much emphasis on things other than language both in poetry and fiction today. The great music (language) of poetry and fiction is difficult, but eventually is the most satisfying aspect, because it gives again and again, like anything by Stevens or Joyce. How does one almost untrain oneself and start believing that words are also “the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what it is they are thinking”?
WHG: Well, all you have to do is practice on yourself. How do you know what is to come next in the sentence? Well, you have some sort of general idea, but what the sentence choice turns out to be is dictated more and more as you’re listening to your own work, to elements that don’t directly belong to the concepts you were dealing with initially. And so you’re led. There’s something about what’s happening in your musical mind, say, that is leading the sentence to appear, choosing the words for you. When you get everybody pulling together—music and meaning—you get the effect you want. What is nicest is, of course, to find you’re being nudged by the vocal, but you don’t want to have every sentence sound like Edith Sitwell. You want to organize and make sense out of it on a conceptual level as well as a physical, or musical, level. And indeed, a spatial level. Like a parking garage, there are a bunch of levels. And the oral includes some of them, not all of them. And some poets are better at one thing than another. Now, if I were to take a poem and write it out as a sentence, it would appear to be what it is: prose. The best poetry in the later part of my lifetime seems to be written by prose writers. All you have to do is pick up the books and see how the language flows, and read some of the poets. It’s scary how nothing is there of the poetry. Hardy’s very good to study in this regard. He gave up novel writing. He wrote some great poems.
GG: I wanted to ask about the “Why Windows are Important to Me” philippic in The Tunnel. Two key lines appear on opposing pages (296-7). They are pleas, really. “To be free is the greatest blessing the world never gives” and “Why should another’s body be so beautiful its absence is as painful as the presence of your own?” The second particularly speaks to a condition that some people experience—loving being painful. They leave themselves just enough to be surprised that the other they love is not them and a recoil begins, as love turns to hate. These questions have been with us forever and literature has been saturated with them. Are we just voices in the dark, as Beckett seemed to say, asking to be recognized, asking for someone or something to take mercy on us?
WHG: It’s close. That may be stipulating even more than is happening.
GG: Well, they’re powerful enough to make me examine them. They have an effect. Not even intellectually. On so many levels.
WHG: Well, that’s why in Middle C, this guy thinks, somehow, that if he can just get the one sentence right everything else will fall into line. He eventually solves his puzzle. Twelve tones, twelve words arranged in exactly the right way. And nothing whatever is in line. But yeah, you know, Beckett is quite good about all this, because every time one of his characters completes something—which is almost never—it just dissolves into another task. And explaining the universe is like that. Every once in a while some magazine or something asks all kinds of people what the meaning of life is, and of course, it has no meaning. It isn’t a sign. No. So we have to give it meaning. And that’s why you have to decide whether you want to live in a Catholic four-bedroom house or a Jewish three-bedroom house, you know? Or something modern that has no ideological frame. It is nice to live without beliefs. People don’t understand that. They think, “Gee, he doesn’t believe this. He doesn’t believe that. So he’s miserable.” But no, he has escaped a troublesome relative.
GG: In thinking of American writers and the sexual, I keep coming back to you and John Hawkes. The sexuality in at least a few of his books is orgiastic, but dark and murky as well. When you talk about the sexual, particularly in The Tunnel and “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” such as the line “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands,” you have a more celebratory view. It’s also this way in your essays—metaphors of great desire, lust, touch, kiss. How important is sexuality and the sexual to your writing?
WHG: Oh, very. I’m a forsaken Freudian. I passed through a period. But one has to, first of all, disentangle talking about sex and using a word associated with sex. It’s quite different. Because my work doesn’t have much sexuality in any direct way. There’s none, almost, in Middle C, by deliberation in terms of the character. But as used in On Being Blue or in The Tunnel, there’s plenty of the words. The sex or the sensuality comes in the treatment of the language, by which you might be putting on a pair of dungarees, you know? The scene need not be sexual at all, but the language should be sensuous. And often you have a scene that is full of sexual words, but there isn’t much sex to it at all, because it’s just words. Most of the words that we think of as sexual aren’t sexual. We destroyed that. It’s very hard to imagine it. And it’s idealized sex. And when we say, similarly, in music, that a violinist caresses some notes, it is a caress, but nobody had to take his shirt off. Explicit sex, I hardly ever write anything about that. A little bit, a tiny bit. A few pages in The Tunnel. That’s it, as far as I remember. Another reason for avoiding that subject in an explicit way is that I want to avoid as much as possible situations, extreme situations, whose reality is strong, because then the reader is reading it like a newspaper or something. If you’re going to write aesthetically about it, you have to defuse its power in order to get anybody to pay any attention to the nature of the prose. And that’s what ninety percent of bad literature is. It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever. And it isn’t art. A case in point: when Faulkner did the scene in Sanctuary where the girl is raped with a corncob, some people read that book and never even know that happened. He defused it. And in Greek tragedy, nothing happens with all this death that’s going on all around, hardly any of it ever onstage. And, when it is put onstage, the critics just scream. It’s so the chorus or the characters can talk about it, announce it, report it. And great language appears. That’s one of the great difficulties Hawkes has, is to take something that is so revolting in life and write about it beautifully. And that makes people mad, you know? Because they think you’re doing something, you’re advising or approving the situation, which isn’t the case. That’s one reason he liked violence. There are scenes in The Lime Twig that are so beautiful, so awful. That’s art, boy. And Beckett. People say, “I don’t read Beckett. It’s too grim.” It’s not grim at all. I mean, wow. But you have to go visit that and know how to disarm the world in order that it’ll make room for you, your handling of it. If tragedies weren’t tragic, nobody would go to them. Hamlet leaves nearly everybody dead. Of beautiful last words.
GG: So again it’s a question of how far do you want to go into life rather than all the car crashes, which are kind of the sensory popcorn feeling.
WHG: The passage where I had to face this that’s most obvious in The Tunnel is the scene set in the pit at Dubno, in which people are being machine-gunned. There’s your extreme event. You want to get that horror examined and the event presented, but you won’t want anybody screaming. I mean, you want the opposite of that, and of course you get an intensity of a different sort, you hope, but you don’t want to envision it and then say, “What fun.” That’s not what you’re after. But it’s easier to dismiss the newspaper report: So many hundred people were killed yesterday by . . . Oh, that’s terrible. But if you do the Dubno pit scene right, they don’t forget the Dubno pit. And that’s what you want, but it’s a different level of feeling of things.
GG: It seems like your entire opus comes down to wrestling with the question of evil.
WHG: Well, that’s certainly one question that’s everybody’s problem. We live in very bad times. Maybe there were other times worse or as bad. How can we measure? When things happened badly in medieval time, probably only a minor fraction of the people alive knew about it. Here, news about these things comes from every corner of the world. We’re bombarded with not only the St. Louis daily murder of somebody and the deaths in Somalia, but then also with this tipped-over school bus and a bomb set off in a market. It’s brutal. And we sit there and say, “Oh my God, this baby was in the lap of her mother sitting and looking at the TV when a bullet came through the house and killed it.” Oh dear, indeed. Thanks to the National Rifle Association. Next page. It’s incredible. Wife beating. Bankers who defraud are up next. But we sigh and turn the page. We have to live in this world. So we go on to the next catastrophe. We have young boys out shooting one another. I remember when we used to—we don’t anymore—count the number of people killed by Labor Day in this country. And there would be a little headline in the paper. “This Year: Record Broken,” as if it were a score, a contest.
GG: From your writing, I get the sense that injustice affects you in a very deep way.
WHG: I don’t know that I feel angrier than anybody else. During the sixties, I went out and did what everybody else was doing. Our yells wore costumes.
WHG: Yeah, making speeches, getting myself in a lot of trouble.
GG: Against the war?
WHG: Yeah, it started at a time when two big things were happening. First the foundation of the United Nations. And I was preaching against the veto power of the major powers, that it was just not going to work right. Nobody can have a veto. That was one. And the other was my speeches about Israel. I hated the founding of Israel, and made speeches about how it was going to be an international ghetto, and the Palestinians had rights, and history bestows no particular right. There is indeed a statute of limitations. Anyway, those two things were going on, and then there was the Civil Rights stuff, and then of course the Vietnam War. And then there were the flower children, the sex stuff. What hypocrisy. And so I did my little time occupying buildings and marching up and down and making speeches. I was at Purdue then, and Purdue is a very conservative place.
GG: You were in your early forties around this time?
WHG: Yeah. That’s when I met my wife, Mary, just about that time. They wanted to fire me at the university. In the town, they threw garbage on my front porch and stuff like that. And then I was denied gasoline at the station. But that was my big time in activism.
GG: Was that instrumental in you leaving Purdue?
WHG: Well, I certainly wanted to. I wanted to leave everything. Yeah, I was ready to go. And it was just fortuitous. The president handed around copies of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife to the board of trustees. They wanted to get rid of me for what they thought a horrible business. And then the head of the student newspaper, who was a terrific young man, he was in trouble. And I was the cause of all of it, because he was a philosophy student, and I was the head of the Faculty Action Committee. The Futility Committee, it should’ve been. But it was easy to see through much of it. Most of the students were mobilized because they were afraid of going to the war. I don’t blame them. If we still had a People’s Army and they were carrying their own guns into battle, we wouldn’t have as many wars. I found out very quickly—it wasn’t hard to find out—that the sexual revolution was machismo to the nth degree, and women were being exploited and misused. And I don’t know why people didn’t see through Martin Luther King, because it was pretty obvious. Nevertheless, he did good. History is very complicated.
GG: You are now eighty-eight. Many of the writers you have been mentioned with have passed on, except for John Barth and Robert Coover. How is it to have lasted so long?
WHG: They didn’t pass on. They died. Well, Barth keeps in shape. I don’t know if that even really works. I don’t drink as much as I used to. But I drink a lot. I have a salt-free diet. But other than that, we don’t do anything special. I never did get a lot of activity, except when we traveled. There was a lot of walking. In the old days, I cycled. I used to ride a bicycle all the time to school. When I was at Purdue, it was several miles I’d bike. But then less and less. I became more and more like Kohler, I got fat. But I was sixty when I did. People don’t realize that sometimes. Mary and I have been married for forty-two years. I suppose people thought, when we married—with she young and I in my forties—that it wouldn’t last. But it did. I got lucky.
Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, the Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, the Millions, and others. A book of stories called My Brooklyn Writer Friend is out from Queens Ferry Press.