In 2010, I attended a rousing, weeklong workshop at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writing Seminars with the illustrious Charles Baxter. We remained in touch. I sent him a children’s art book about faces I thought he would appreciate; he sent me a link to a hilarious South Park episode that related to my work. Periodically, I updated him regarding progress on my novel. Because he is as kind and generous as everyone says, he always wrote back with empathy and encouragement.
A few weeks ago, I took part in the inaugural craft intensive workshop with Tin House’s spectacular assistant editor Emma Komlos-Hrobsky. The possibility of interviewing Charlie came up in conversation, as the Tin House folk revealed themselves as “great fans” of Mr. Baxter. I contacted Charlie, and he graciously agreed. Our email exchange follows.
Susan Tacent: In Emma’s craft workshop, we talked about the appeal of humor in literary fiction. You do humor gloriously in your writing, like Benny Takemitsu in “Chastity,” imagining how the baby that will result from the young couple in the next apartment would soon provide its own version of their audible “love-yelps.” There are countless examples that range from subtle to laugh out loud. You make the humor look simple and we all know it’s not. Why is writing funny so difficult?
Charles Baxter: Because you can’t labor at it and let the labor show. It has to look easy, light as a feather, effortless. Comic moments are usually great pieces of luck when they arrive, and sometimes they come out of nowhere. Trying to be funny is the death of comedy: Nothing is less funny than the person dressed up in the clown suit honking his air-horn and doing a pratfall while reciting The Gettysburg Address. Wit and humor are famously elusive; it’s a gift that’s easy to lose. Even some of Shakespeare’s comedies have not aged well. For comedy, you have to get the timing exactly right and catch the reader unawares. The character that is being funny should rarely realize that he’s funny; usually he’s terribly serious: monomaniacs are hilarious. Comedy is a product of sudden incongruity, and I just don’t think you can force those moments. But if you’re careful, you can arrange them, using invisible wires.
ST: Another elusive element of fiction is narrative voice. I’ve been trying to think of it as an integument, a container that turns pieces into story. For instance, in “Loyalty”: “Actors can’t duplicate this look. It only happens in real life.” This is Wes, observing his wife Astrid while she tries to make sense of the arrival of his ex-wife Corinne, reappearing after a long absence and in mental disarray. This is the kind of strong assertion I mean, handed to a character but somehow to the story as well. It inspires confidence in the reader. It’s writerly control. How do you do it?
CB: Voice: you could write a book about it, and people have, but like comedy it should arrive naturally and not be forced. Isn’t voice really an outgrowth of a stance and point of view, both of which get transmogrified into a characteristic way of saying something? I don’t think a writer can fashion a voice, just as you can’t fashion your own face. Tony Soprano didn’t work to sound the way he does; he just sounds that way. I never worried about voice that much and instead thought that voice probably wouldn’t be a particularly distinctive part of my fiction, as it is in some other writers. My fiction should slowly creep up on you. It doesn’t announce itself in the first sentence. You try to make the sentences serve the story and the situation and not blast out from the first paragraph. You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire in the first sentence, and you don’t have to make an assertion that turns the volume up to eleven, either. I know that some writers think that voice is everything, but that strikes me as a kind of narcissism. Speaking of narcissists, Harold Brodkey wrote great sentences with a high-volume voice, and nobody reads him anymore. Brodkey was supposed to be writing the Great American Novel? Okay: where is it? The Runaway Soul? Guess not. It’s 800 pages of beautiful sentences and a strong voice, and it’s unreadable. By contrast, I like that pale neutrality of Chekhov’s prose.
ST: I facilitate a book club at an assisted living residence near my home; we’ve read four of your stories so far. “Winter Journey,” “Royal Blue,” “Scheherazade,” and “Gryphon.” The women – they are all women, with a collective age somewhere around 900 years – love your writing, and, by extension, you. I told them what a lovely person you are and they said of course he is. But they argued over “Gryphon.” Would they want their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be in a fourth grade classroom with a substitute teacher like Miss Ferenczi? The Miss Ferenczi-haters wanted to know how she could be a force for good. There was an Aha moment when I pointed out that the narrator of “Gryphon” was speaking from the future. To my mind, this is a story in part about how a child learns to value a certain type of rule-breaking creativity. Still, a few of them remained disgruntled.
CB: Yes. Miss Ferenczi is an ambassador from the land of imagination. In the land of imagination, you think at first that it’ll all be peaches and cream: wonderful oddball facts and images and poetry—a big relief from the usual. But if you’re going to cast your vote for the imagination, you had better be ready for the darkness and craziness, because that’s going to be part of the imagination’s landscape, too. All the visits that Ms. Ferenczi makes to that classroom get progressively darker until finally no one will allow her in the vicinity. I liked her, but I wouldn’t want her in a schoolroom with my granddaughter for more than an hour or so.
ST: It’s good to be reminded of imagination’s dangerous side. For the writer, your reminder seems both invitation and warning.
CB: American writers often have the idea that the imagination’s powers can be used as therapy. Well, maybe. Sometimes. We’re a very pragmatic culture, and we like to think that the imagination can be put to good uses. But the imagination—the ability to bring to life hypothetical or possible worlds (or sounds, or sights)—does not guarantee anybody a better day-to-day life. Having and using the imagination is like living under a spell, and sometimes it’s the case that having a good imagination makes your life worse, not better. And the visions you have can come close to killing you. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the imagination’s power. It’s a fire. It can burn you.
ST: “Gryphon” also examines how we learn to perceive the world.
CB: That story arose from several circumstances. I taught grade school after I graduated from college, and I did it to stay out of the War in Vietnam, a war that I thought was stupid and evil. One spring afternoon, in the class of fourth graders I was teaching, I was supposed to be instructing them in Egyptian geography, including the irrigation systems in that part of the world. And I thought, “I don’t have to read the lesson. I’ll make it all up. What do they know? They’re only fourth graders.” So that’s what I did. I thought maybe they would go home and somehow expose my fraud, and I’d be fired. But that didn’t happen. Somehow all this also got conflated with the fact that we were being lied to, as a nation, about the war. I wrote a novel about all these lies and confabulations. The novel didn’t work. So I did a salvage operation on the novel and turned it into a story. The story was “Gryphon.”
ST: The teaching job was enough to get you out of the draft?
CB: Yes. I got an occupational deferment.
ST: Was the novel also going to be called “Gryphon”?
CB: No. I think it was called Ground Zero. I don’t have a copy of it anymore.
ST: You’re a big William Maxwell fan. My assisted living group and I read So Long, See You Tomorrow. The women loved his writing but disliked the story. Too vague, they complained, too distant. They did chuckle appreciatively over the dog’s story, though they felt the heartbreak was a bit much. I was surprised. What do you think they were missing?
CB: The story isn’t there at all unless you see the parallels operating in it. The whole book has to do with parallel undoings: how Maxwell was undone by the death of his mother; how Cletus is undone by the murder his father has committed (Cletus does not receive an acknowledgment from Maxwell, years later, in the high school hallway in Chicago where they encounter each other, and that, too, is a wound); and how the two farmers are undone by the love one feels for the other’s wife, which betrays their friendship. The question the book asks near the end is the crucial one: how do you go on, undestroyed (the book’s word) following a terrible calamity? The ending always brings tears to my eyes. The author still asks himself, he says, whether Cletus could go on in his life undestroyed by what was not his own doing. And the narrator is asking that same question about himself. Don’t we all ask ourselves that question, whether we can go on, undestroyed by what has not been our own doing? Sometimes the answer is that we can’t.
ST: At Sarah Lawrence, you urged us to linger in the emotional heart of a scene. What is gained in a writer’s deliberately slowing down at certain moments?
CB: It’s a thumb in the eye of the zeitgeist. Everything now is supposed to go fast; everything is supposed to be so efficient. Since when was fiction supposed to submit to time-and-motion studies? Impatience and distraction are our great enemies and must be conquered somehow. We all know that some of our most profound moments happen with a kind of languor: pleasure and love and sorrow and prayer take their own sweet time. When the pace slows down, we are allowed to explore a feeling and to understand it inwardly. Here’s the Sistine Chapel: you have thirty seconds to look at the ceiling! Hurry up! No. A thousand times no. A sign of the times: at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, I remember going into the Vatican Pavilion (yes, there was one), that had a moving floor that took you past Michelangelo’s Pietà so fast that you only had about thirty seconds to look at it. I’m not kidding. It was the wave of the future. Art should be an antidote to Speed Culture.
ST: In the essay “Lush Life,” you make the observation that “style…does not precede a vision; it is an integral part of that vision.” Lush styles “thrive when your heart is full, when you are feeling expansive, when your emotions are overflowing and unprotected.” Against this you pose irony as a “form of protection,” suggesting the possibility that we are “all overprotected.” What might it take for contemporary writing to swing back to lush?
CB: I don’t know. Maybe a feeling that what we have is passing, that what we have loved is getting away from us. Lush styles try to preserve several time-frames all at once (James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner) and their fiction is permeated by a feeling for loss and a wish to preserve what is remembered alongside the present moment. Rachmaninoff’s music is like that, too. So are Frank Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s. Jonny Greenwood’s music has that quality. It’s not absent from contemporary art.
ST: From Rachmaninoff to Radiohead. Are you thinking here of any contemporary art in particular?
CB: No, just a trend of sorts in music and art and literature: go-for-broke stylists with their hearts on their sleeves and a sense that we may be in end times.
ST: There is a fabulous scene in your new collection where Elijah, a pediatrician who specializes in mitochondrial disorders, encounters the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock on a park bench late one night. You’re a film buff, and I imagine you’ve already seen the film Boyhood. I wonder what you thought of Linklater capturing footage from 2002 to 2013 to tell that story. And whether you think there have been, are, or will be similar ways to tell stories in fiction.
CB: I loved it. Usually you can’t do what Joan Silber calls “long time” in the movies without heavy make-up to show aging. Or you need different actors to do the character at different times in life. Movies are better at short time spans. But fiction has always done long time, decades-long development. It’s one of its stock-in-trades: David Copperfield, or Natasha in War and Peace or Jude the Obscure. I did it in my first novel, First Light. We all do it.
ST: Your latest collection, There’s Something I Want You to Do, has a remarkable form of its own. Ten stories, five titled with a virtue, five with a vice. The collection title appears once in each story, as do the individual story titles. Adding to the complexity of this arrangement, many of the characters are also players in more than one story. You’ve created a game for the reader; even as we are swept up into the stories, we pause a moment to search for the phrases. We toggle back and forth between story title and story event. We think we recognize a character before the character has been positively identified. We anticipate whose story might possibly come next. Change the names of the characters, shift the setting, alter the plot to end happily or sadly; the human condition, you’re helping us see, remains more or less the same. It seems to me that one of the things you’ve accomplished in There’s Something I Want You To Do is to make explicit what has mostly been implicit in the short story as a form.
CB: Maybe. I’m not sure how to answer. Short stories can take so many shapes and forms. In the new book the stories seem to be suggesting that there’s another world right next to ours, and it’s here, now (to paraphrase Robert Creeley). Dogmatic Christians seem to be disturbed by the stories, but generally the stories have been received pretty well. When I started the book, I didn’t have an overall plan for it, apart from creating an informal decalogue of sorts. You should feel a shape, a form, in the book, but it shouldn’t feel labored. But for me, all the characters came first. I just wrote down what they did and said.
ST: At your recent talk titled “Urgency and Momentum” you introduced a new theoretical framework you’ve been exploring, that you called “request moments.” You spoke about how much of the time, most if not all of us are doing not what we want to do but what other people ask of us either directly or indirectly. Your point was to arrive at a type of necessity, that creates, as you put it, “forces in narrative that make characters do what they do.” Clearly, from your new collection’s title, the trope has caught your attention.
CB: There’s too much emphasis these days on the singular ego, the singular self, both in fiction and outside of it. I’d like to think that the request moment is only one of many dramatic forms that we can discover when we think about social interactions; in fact, there’s an infinite number of ways that we place requests, conditions, blessings, and wounds on each other. Each of them is dramatic.
ST: Writers have different favorites among Graywolf’s Art of series. As editor, do you think you’ll ever run out of topics for the series? Will there be a new one soon?
CB: We have one on the Art of History by Christopher Bram, who wrote the novel on which the movie Gods and Monsters was based. We also have one by Chris Castellani on the Art of Perspective. I don’t think you could ever run out of topics.
ST: You’ve written novels, short stories, poetry, craft essays. Do you have any idea what’s next?
CB: A novel. I think.
ST: It’s fair to say you’ve been at this writing gig for a while now. Does it get any easier?
CB: I wish I could say that it does, but no, it doesn’t get any easier. Not at all. Sorry.
Charles Baxter is the author of 5 novels, 5 collections of short stories, 3 collections of poems, and 2 collections of essays on fiction. He teaches at the University of Minnesota.
Susan Tacent has been published in journals including Dostoevsky Studies, The Keats-Shelley Journal, Ontario Review, Blackbird, and DIAGRAM. She is currently putting final touches on Experience Points, her novel about a woman whose life is not the same after she discovers an MMORPG.