Grand Ballroom, Hilton Chicago Hotel | February 14, 2009
Episode 6: A Reading and Conversation with Charles Baxter
(Charles Baxter, Allen Gee) A reading with award winning author Charles Baxter followed by a conversation between Charles Baxter and Allen Gee.
Published Date: September 4, 2009
Welcome to the AWP Podcast series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Chicago on February 14th, 2009. The event features Charles Baxter and Allen Gee and was sponsored by Georgia College & State University and Arts & Letters.
Welcome once again, everyone. And particularly welcome to this session, as [inaudible 00:00:24] said, sponsored by Georgia College & State University's Master of Fine Arts. I am indeed Karen McElmurray. I teach nonfiction and fiction at Georgia College and I'm also creative nonfiction editor for Arts & Letters. I'm honored to be here today to introduce Charles Baxter, who will be reading, followed by a question and answer session with Georgia College's own, Allen Gee. Teaches fiction in our MFA program and is fiction editor for Arts & Letters. Gee, is at work on a story collection temptingly called 12 Questions I've Asked Myself Late at Night, part of which I understand has just appeared in Plowshares. I first met Charles Baxter years ago when I worked for the low-residency program at Warren Wilson College, where my job was to type up experiential transcripts, answer the phone and help arrange dance parties where I remember always hearing burning down the house.
I also sit in on as many lectures and workshops as I could. Given the subject of identity theft in Baxter's new novel, The Sole Thief, I'm a little wary of using terms like follower, but it's true. For years I've been a follower of the instructions Baxter gave to his workshop members those years ago. "Participants," he says, "should try first to discover the work's intentions, setting aside for the moment one's own tastes and preferences." Baxter's intentions as an artist according to a recent 10 house interview, have moved from the desire to write a visionary world powered by great anxiety and a manic exuberance to the wish to write prose that is not grand, but serviceable. Still a visionary, Baxter's new collection of essays, The Art of the Subtext speak to the realm of what haunts the imagination, the implied, the half visible, the unspoken. In these ex essays, Baxter asks us to look not merely at intentions but at the subterranean realm of fiction and of our contemporary lives.
In these essays, Baxter exam is not only a humanism where disguise has become the norm, but also the way a story's mastered craft dialogue, gesture, staging, characterization can reach for vital intentions. In a media-driven, terrorist inhabited self-driven world intentions can manifest in loneliness, absence, the inability to listen to each other, a cool posturing, a cynical withdrawal from others and from ourselves. "If we do not see the other, Baxter asks, "how do we begin to see ourselves? How," he further asks, "can we approach stories as readers and as writers about persons who have been granted their humanity, who can live and die with all their attendant angels and devils lurking in the background, people in short, with those archaic things called souls."
Charles Baxter is the author of five novels including The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, Feast of Love, Shadow Play, and First Light, as well as the story collections Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net and Harmony of War, which won the AWP award for short fiction. His essay collections are the recently released The Art of the Subtext and Burning Down the House, a series of lectures for his MFA students at Warren Wilson's MFA program. He's a poet, as he says, first chosen genre with the collection Imaginary Paintings. He has been guest editor for the collections of essays and fiction, including the Business of Memory and Bringing the Devil to His Knees. Formerly part of the Department of English and the MFA program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Charles Baxter now teaches at the University of Minnesota where I imagine him making the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary for all our lives. Thank you, and join me in welcoming Charles Baxter.
Thank you all, and thank you all for coming. As you may know, I was asked to fill in for James Alan McPherson after he became ill and I was happy and honored to do that. For one thing, I feel as if I owe this organization a great deal. As was said in the introduction, my first book was in the AWP series in 1984 when, I'll just mention this, the convention was held in Savannah, Georgia and I think there were all of 130 people registered. It was very different in those days. I want to start actually by reading something of Jim McPherson's because he can't be here. I think it would be nice to have his words here anyway. I'm going to read two little sections from his memoir, Crabcakes. He was born and raised in Baltimore and crabcakes were very important to him. They're sort of the mad laugh for his memories.
I'd also mention just as we start that if you care at all about the American Short story, you should read Jim's books, Hue and Cry and Elbow Room. They're just among the best short stories written by anybody ever and in the African-American tradition they're right at the top. The narrator has arrived at the realty office in Baltimore where the real estate agent has her office and is about to put his family's house for sale. "I am told when I arrive at the office that my own agent, Ms. Gale Wilson, has been detained. While I wait for her, I listen to an elderly, extremely muscular black man who is flirting with the young receptionist at her desk. He has just retired and is now about to close on a house, his first in a lifetime of working.
He talks about the kindness of the Jewish woman who has sold it to him. He brags about the new appliances he has purchased. I think while I listen to him talk, this is what our struggle has been about all along. This man, this laden his life has become renewed by the ethic that exists in ownership. This has always been the certified way people show that they have moved up in life. It is what the society offers and it is enough for most people. What did I have against it all these years? The man is joyous, flirting with the young black woman. He's no longer a laborer. He now is an owner. He is now her equal. He has a house, new appliances, and is on the lookout for a companion who would want to share the castle of his dreams. It has always been as simple as that.
I have not observed the styles of black people in many years. The kindly flirtation between the two of them reminds me of something familiar that I had almost forgotten. It seems to be something shadowy about language being secondary to the way it is used. The forgotten thing is about the nuances of words that only employ words as ballast for the flight of pitch and intonation. It is the pitch and the intonation that carries meaning. I've forgotten this." And another very brief section that I'll read has to do with his having gone to Japan and studied there and he comes back to America and there's something that he notices about the way Americans behave. He notices it only after he's been in Japan and he thinks of it as a masquerade.
"The masquerade of which I speak has generated a disease very quickly now like a virus or a plague. Its point of contact is by way of one poisoned soul, inflicting its venom under the guise of harmonious flow on the unsuspecting and open soul of another. Here's how it works. A man in a restaurant which prides itself on family atmosphere and intimacy of service." I'm sorry, "A man sits in a restaurant which prides itself on family, atmosphere, and intimacy of service. He requests a menu, compliments the waitress when she brings it and engages her in friendly small talk. He finally orders a hamburger medium rare with a special bun with mayonnaise, lettuce, a dash of spices. In other words, the works. The waitress brings it and again, she is complimented by the man causing her to smile. He keeps up a flow of conversation with her while he eats the burger as she rushes past his table and then back into the kitchen.
He does not try to miss a chance to tell her how good the burger is. 'It is so good.' He tells her that he wants to order a second one. This one to go with the very same specifications. It has to be brought to his table just after he has finished this meal. As ordered, the waitress brings the new burger wrapped to go. Again, the man compliments her on her care of him and on the superb quality of the burger. He lays blessings on both the waitress and the family restaurant. Then he goes to the counter to pay the bill. There he says in a loud and angry voice, loud enough for the waitress cleaning off her table to hear, 'This hamburger is cold. I ordered it hot. I'm not going to pay for it.' Something evil has happened in this transaction. The expectation of a naive and trusting soul has been raised with respect to the most simple things and then has been crushed.
The man seems respectable from all outward appearances. He seems to be a model citizen, but there is a meanness to him, a smallness of soul or perhaps," and this is the phrase I love, "a terror of soul that causes him to make a lifestyle, an art of scooping out small particles of substance from the souls, the spirits of others. This is only one man, but his compatriots are legion. This is the new form of human being that is emerging here. The Japanese word [foreign language 00:13:29], out of human may come close to defining people here who have lost the capacity to be human." And that's James Alan McPherson. You can see he has a very lyrical sense of the ordinary of the human and of the moral.
What I'm going to do in the time that I have, because Stuart mentioned this, it's Valentine's Day and I thought I would do a thematically organized reading about Valentine's Day since I have written a book called The Feast of Love and I've written another one called The Soul Thief. The one that I'm going to start with is from The Soul Thief and it's what I guess I would call an anti-Valentine, and it has to do with a man who is doing his best to describe what it's been like to be married for 30-plus years, this particular marriage. He's also going to be describing his sons. "After dinner, the boys disappeared. Jeremy into his room to do his homework, write out his college applications and to call his current girlfriend, Celeste. Like other American teenagers, Jeremy has his own cell phone and sometimes the two of them simply stay on the phone all evening as they do their homework.
I don't see how this is physically possible, but I know that it happens. Jeremy's ear has reddened from having a phone always pressed up against it. He has had one girlfriend or another for as long as I can remember. They adore him. His kindness, his good looks, his gentlemanly manners, and his attentiveness. Even when he breaks up with one of them, he manages to be so gracious that they stick around. It will not be like that when his younger brother, Michael, when his romantic feelings are stirred up. There will be an atmosphere of sickness and apocalypse. Michael will make them all crazy.
Once about a year ago in the car, as we drove along the back roads to one of Jeremy's swim meets in the next town over, I said to Laura, my wife, that she and I were like a couple of oxen hitched together, yoked, and that when we had first come out of the stable, no one had known how much work we were good for. As it turned out, we had accomplished plenty. We were a good team. We had met when I was still working for the amalgamated gas and electric company and she and I had endured periods of tight budgets in some of the terrible economies that can break a marriage. She was of course offended by my remarks. 'Oxen, yoked together, not a kind analogy, not very romantic.' Her womanly honor was offended.
I am not stupid. I know that no wife wants to be compared to an ox. Laura, by the way, is now a collector and dealer in contemporary and classic quilts. I hadn't known anything about quilting and the system of sales and trading in women's quilts until I met her, but she knew all the networks. In any case, I don't see what's particularly romantic about a married couple raising their children and getting from day-to-day and I said so that afternoon in the car I made my case. The ordinary business of diapers and fevers and broken bones and drafty rooms and lost socks and schedules on the refrigerator door take the shine off everything for a while. Women understand this better than men do. Why should any marriage with kids be starry-eyed?
Romantic heat may start the process off, but dutiful and pure stubbornness, keep it going. Romance," this is my personal view, "Is a destructive myth after the age of 19. Most people give it up and they should. Percy Bysshe Shelley may have been a great poet, but he had an aversion to raising the children he sired and he avoided them and they suffered." You can look it up. "Girls swoon over Jeremy. They can see that he's a practical boy and will be a pragmatic man. Once he's married, he'll be steady. He's a great prospect. Reliability is sexy. Of course, having good looks like his sweetens the whole deal. They attend his swim meets to see him in his Speedo these girls. Avid. They smiled to themselves. Their eyes are wide and glistening. But on that day, Laura was angered by what I had said. She went into a sulk and even though Jeremy won his event with a personal best, she wouldn't speak to me on the trip back home.
It was the ox simile she told me. She and I have had our share of shadows. We've been lucky, but not that lucky. For years we were poor." I've mentioned this. "When the quilting business was flat, Laura worked as an administrative assistant. I took a second job teaching a night class for immigrants, English as a second language. Then there was the accident. When Jeremy was six years old and Laura was driving him home from daycare she hit a pedestrian who was crossing a street downtown. She'd been adjusting the radio to get a better station and Jeremy had been yelling and she was distracted. Baby Michael was home with me. This guy was where he shouldn't have been, no intersection and no crosswalk, but Laura hadn't seen him and the impact of the car threw him several feet into the air. He went unconscious for an hour or two, had a concussion, multiple fractures, and was in the hospital for over a month.
He turned out to be one of those litigious Americans, real bastard, a pain profiteer, also an electrician and a drunk, but his alcoholism didn't get into the trial. He sued, of course. It's true that Laura hadn't had her eyes on the road, and it's also true that our Chevy needed brake work. Our insurance was paid up, thank God, but the whole process went on for a couple of years. We were destroyed in some of the usual ways. And when it was over, you couldn't find either of us for a while. We had become vague and insulated, but we're lucky comparatively.
Our next door neighbors have had the whole meal. Their daughter ran away a couple of times, mismanaged a major cocaine addiction and was turning tricks in Atlantic City by the age of 16. She even had her own pimp. The parents were nice, middle class Americans, churchgoers. They didn't know what was happening to them or how it had started. This same daughter got herself enrolled in a recovery program, emerged from it. Began cutting herself for fun, then ran away again this time to San Francisco where she resumed her career. This time she refused help. She accompanied her pimp boyfriend on a drugstore holdup. Was caught and jailed. Her brother inspired by her behavior, developed a liking for Vicodin, so he started stealing prescription pills. He earned his own jail time, et cetera. Two kids in the slammer. The father commenced drinking and why wouldn't he? Catastrophe is contagious. Everybody knows stories like this.
My point is that middle class life in this country seems to be operating on a contingency basis. It can change on you at any moment. They can pull the rug out from under you. You can be thrown out into the street without appeal. Your furniture is carted away. Your clothes are tossed on the front lawn. Your children are ground up. Catastrophe lurks, ruination prospers. I went into the den and gazed down at Kohlberg's phone number. The numbers in that particular combination had a terrible frightening appearance to me. My hands were shaking, and of course, I didn't want to go back into that world. I had lost my mind once and I didn't want to lose it again."
Well, that's a fairly dark valentine reading, isn't it? So now I'm going to do something. I always think of Monty Python and now for something completely different. I'm going to read a part from The Feast of Love. And this is always tricky for me to read because it's Chloe, the 19-year-old girl who's narrating it and I don't know, I just don't sound like a 19-year-old girl, especially with laryngitis. It's something wrong there. Anyway, I'll do my best. Chloe has a boyfriend Oscar, and their last time in bed together, she put her head down on his chest and she heard something in his heart she didn't like and she thinks, well, maybe we don't have a future together, and she thinks I need to go to a psychic. So since she lives in Ann Arbor, and since some of you I know know that town and since there are no really good psychics in Ann Arbor, she has to go over to Ypsi to Ypsilanti where the great psychics are.
Chloe goes to, she's on her bicycle. No, she's actually in an AMC matador and she comes to a place where there's a sign that says professional psychic, fortunes told tarot or palm reading, walk-ins welcome. "It's dark, no crystal balls. She's in possession of this gross corduroy sofa that smells of spilled meatloaf and cat food and off to the side there's a partially assembled table and two chairs and a church rummage sale table lamp with birds and bunnies painted on it, and over on the wall there's a laurel and hardy clock with their eyes moving back and forth with the pendulum. Except not quite. There's other loyal and hardy stuff in the room, L&H porcelain cups, souvenir Laurel and Hardy dinner plates mounted on the wall and a one-foot-high Laurel and Hardy statue set in the corner.
On the other wall is a picture of down by the old millstream that you'd buy at Woolworths. At my ankles, a black vampire cat is stroking against my legs and purring. God, I hate cats. I'm the only girl my age I know who really hates cats. Meanwhile, country western moron music if you ask me, Trisha Yearwood or somebody, you're cheating this and you're cheating that is playing off some staticky AM radio in the back. I hear this voice, 'I'll be right with you.' And then the sound of a toilet flushing and somebody gargling.
In comes Mrs. Maggaroulian, which I know is her name because her business card is out on the table and her name is also in like little print on the front window and she says, 'Hi, I'll be with you in a minute, honey.' I look at the wall, she's posted the prices. Tarot readings are $12, poem readings are $12, and the guaranteed prediction of the future based on psychic determination, it's $12 too. It's all $12. If I get everything she's offering one from column A, one from column B and the dessert on column C, this is going to cost me a full day's salary, but you can't get your hands on the future [inaudible 00:28:24]. So I shell out almost every piece of folded money I have and I give them to Mrs. Maggaroulian and she puts on her reading glasses that she has on this beaded chain around her neck and she locks the front door and puts my money in a little steel box underneath the table where it's hiding.
By this time, I am noticing that Mrs. Maggaroulian is big. I mean she is really big. The way a giant is big, at least compared to the way women usually are shaped and sized, and she has this mohair wig it looks like, and something there on her jaw that looks like facial hair. Her nose looks like it's made out of modeling clay. Her dress didn't even come off the rack because it's a tablecloth fastened together with safety pins. She wears black nail polish. Not the sexy black but the scary black. She's got big hands and feet, big hoppers and big choppers. This Ypsi chick is not the better business bureau's idea of a respectable psychic, but duh, if she were prettier she'd be broadcasting on the Dionne Warwick Psychic Network at $40 a minute and she'd be on Oprah. Hey, I don't give a shit if she's a drag queen, I'm cool with that. She could be the fucking queen of the May for all I care. I just want the future out of her provided it's 100% accurate.
She sits me down at her table and says, 'Honey, what you want to know about?' So I say, 'I've got this boyfriend Oscar,' and Mrs. Maggaroulian nods because of course she knows what I want to know being able to read my mind. She says, 'We'll do a palm reading first.' She takes my hand, opens up the fingers and studies my palm like a roadmap. She frowns, 'This is your love life,' she says, turning a finger along a crease. 'Notice this.' 'What?' I say, 'You have a relationship with this Oscar? This Oscar relationship,' Mrs. Maggaroulian says, 'Is soon going to be over. It would appear.' 'What do you mean over you? You sure about that?'
'Well, we could ask the cards,' Mrs. Maggaroulian informs me as if she really doesn't like my hand and doesn't want to read it anymore. And she takes out her tarot cards, which get this, she kisses first on the box. Me, I would never do that. I would never kiss a deck of cards ever. She tells the cards in painful detail the questions she wants to ask, and she proceeds to lay them out on the table. I will not talk about the cards that came up. That is such bad luck, but it was like a magical mystery train wreck. 'Well,' says Mrs. Maggaroulian in a sort of guy imitating a woman, Monty Python, bagpipe drag queen voice. 'Well, I've certainly seen better cards, I'll say that.' 'Is there any hope? I asked for the two of us, Oscar and me because I love him and everything.'
'Did you bring any item of his?' Mrs. Maggaroulian asks, emphasizing the word item like it was word candy. Any of his possessions that he's touched often. 'Besides me, you mean? Yeah. This sock,' I say plopping it down on the table. 'And this track team baton.' I wait for a minute and I do my very best to grin, 'And this knife.' She takes the sock in one hand and the relay baton in the other, and she looks up at me and the wig on her head shifts a little to the right toward one o'clock. I can hear Laurel and Hardy ticking my precious time away. I'm afraid she's going to start telling me about her glory days when she was on the track team herself. 'I don't have to hold Oscar's knife,' Mrs. Maggaroulian says. 'You can hold Oscar's knife. I can see everything clearly enough without it. Honey, what did you say your name was?' 'Chloe.'
'Chloe, honey, we're not always right. Sometimes it's a good idea to take the future with a grain of salt. We psychics well, I don't know, psychics have bad days too. We have our up days and our down days.' She puts the baton and the sock back on the table. 'Is this your bad day, Mrs. Maggaroulian?' 'Yes, it is, dear.' She says, 'I have a headache. I have a very terrible headache. It's all those little hammers.' 'Well, what do you see about Oscar Mrs. Maggaroulian?' The room really filled up with the smell of meatloaf right around then, like a freight train of meatloaf had just gone by.
I was beginning to want to get out of there in the worst possible way I could feel the cells of my skin revolting against the room. My individual skin cells wanted to get free of me for just being there. Mrs. Maggaroulian kept trying to smile at me and she kept failing at it. 'Well, honey,' she said, 'everything I see about your boyfriend is not so hotsy, totsy. Both Laurel and Hardy are telling me that his future prospects are not bright. Did you say he was still alive?' 'Oscar? Oh, yeah, he's still alive.' I decided not to ask her about Laurel and Hardy or how she talked to them. Some things don't stand much looking into.
'Well, that's wonderful,' she said. 'You go home to him and give him a big kiss and a bear hug, honey. That's what I would do if I were you. I haven't seen all that much from your future, so I'm going to,' she stood up and went over to her little steel cashier's box and took two fives out of it and handed them back to me. 'I'm going to give you a little refund. $10. Think of this as a refund on your future. You should stop and get a cheeseburger on the way home, honey. Get two cheeseburgers and some fries. Take it all to Oscar. He'll be so grateful. I can guarantee it. If you love him, he's bound to stay alive for a while longer. Then go out bowling tonight with him like a good girlfriend. Do you like bowling? You do go bowling, don't you?' 'I guess.' 'Okay, so go bowling with Oscar because what I see is, you want something to eat? I'm making some meatloaf back there. 'No, thanks.'.
I figured I had to ask, 'Is it bad Mrs. Maggaroulian what you see? You got to tell me. I paid you all this money. It's like this week's savings, wages, and even tips that our customers put in the jar on the front counter. I have to know, I have to know about Oscar.' 'Listen to me.' She gave me a moment to look into her eyes. There was another person living in there at least. You couldn't tell if what was inside Mrs. Maggaroulian was human or just an honorary human. Maybe she was a resident alien. The IRS wouldn't dare audit her because they'd find out she was a alternative life form and they don't have tables for that.
'I can't believe he's alive. This Oscar of yours,' she said. 'But if you really love him, he'll stay alive for a while longer. Trust me on that. People can keep other people alive. Now go home, honey. You go home.' 'I will.' I stopped at the door. 'Mrs. Maggaroulian, I said, 'Are you really a girl?' She didn't even look up. 'No, dear., she said, sniffing, 'I'm a lady.' When I came into the apartment, Oscar was all over the bed, half asleep with his exertions in his shower and his beers. He had the TV on the baseball and his eyes were clothed, and I figured worst case scenario that he was dead. So I took my shoes off and put the two cheeseburgers and the big thing of french fries on the kitchen table and I went running over to where he was and I gave him a good shake and just like that, Presto, his eyes opened. 'Hey, Chloe,' he said. 'What's up?'
I'm straddling him and shaking him and he smiles at me. 'How was basketball?' I ask, 'Great,' he says, 'Man, I was so hot. I was like an action figure. Hey, I see you took the car. Where'd you go?' 'Ypsi,' I said, 'I went to a psychic Mrs. Maggaroulian. I wanted to find some things out.' 'Yeah,' he says, 'Cool, what'd she say?' And that's when I took a deep breath and I looked down at Oscar and I said, 'Oscar, I've got this idea. Don't get mad at me. Okay?' 'Nah,' Oscar says, I wouldn't get mad. What's your idea?' 'Well,' I say, 'I know it's early and all, so maybe we should go slow and everything. And I know that girls aren't supposed to say this, but after talking to Mrs. Maggaroulian I've been thinking maybe I should. I mean, I know this is going to sound real weird because here it is, Saturday afternoon. But anyway, what I was wondering was, Oscar, maybe we should get married. Oscar, would you marry me?'.
And Oscar, who said that he loves me about a thousand times in the last week alone he doesn't even stop to think about it. He just sits up a little in bed and he says, 'Oh, yeah,' like that. 'Oh, yeah. Like it's a great idea that he hadn't thought of recently, but he should have. Then he says, 'That's a real cool idea, Chloe, you and me married, I'd be your husband and you'd be my wife, right? Wow. I'd like to do that.' Some things you think can't ever happen and then they do. So I gave him the hugest kiss he'd ever had, and then I went over and I got the bag and we did a four alarm fuck. And afterwards I fed him the cheeseburgers, both of them, his and mine too, from my hand to his mouth, bite, after bit, after bite, after bite, after bite." Thank you.
All right. Wanted to thank you for reading and talking today. And I'm wondering if I can start with asking you a question about style and I'll preface it. A few years ago I interviewed Ernest Gaines and I asked him about, he had given this narrative about, "I spent all these years in a room writing sentences with eating just crackers and peanut butter. And I spent hours and hours about learning how to craft a sentence." And then I said, "Yeah, but once you did that, you got these compact sentences and everything's there." And I said, "How did you make the decisions or how did you find that style?" And he winked at me slyly like I was asking too much. And he said, "Style is the man. It's how I walk or how I breathe." But I've seen in your writing from, I've been reading you from the 80s through the safety net and through now and seeing obviously changes in growth, and could you comment about style?
Well, the complicated thing about style for me is that most of us, many of you in this room, I think begin our writing lives thinking that either we have a voice or we have to find it. And the style we want is something that's going to be as recognizable to a reader within the first paragraph as say a Hemingway sentence is recognizable as one of his. And it didn't take me very long as a writer to figure out that I wasn't ever going to be like that. My first book of poems, which I hope none of you have ever seen or read, is called Chameleon. And in a sense, that is the kind of writer I was 30 years ago. And to some degree it's the writer I still am. I honestly haven't spent very much time thinking about the style of writing I wanted to put forth on the page as I did of the style of the characters who were coming into the story.
So I mean, just as an example, the two pieces that I just read to you, the one in which Nathaniel is talking to the reader about his married life sounds to me very solid and stocky and a little slow, whereas Chloe's language, the sentence rhythms are hers. I spent a lot of time sitting at the keyboards staring at walls trying to see my characters and then trying to hear them. And in the meantime, I try to find a language for the third person stories that is dictated by the materials. It's like trying to describe your own face finally. I could make some, I suppose, relatively pretentious comments about style and those times when I've wanted the language to be visible to the reader. But for me, always the characters come ahead of the style and I have to find a style to suit them first. Thanks.
Lately I've been hearing reading so much about the future of the book, and I think as teachers we're often asked to, what do we tell our students at this point who are wanting to venture out and become writers? And things have obviously changed now drastically, but I've seen now I think Tom Jenks just had an essay, editorial and narrative about these are the best, but also these are the best maybe and the worst of times going to online publishing and things. Any thoughts on future of the book or writers have to write?
Well, if you were here at three o'clock, Stuart Dybek was also asked this question and he sat and I thought it was wonderful that to some degree we are very much in, he didn't put it this way, I think I would, that we are in a screen culture. That the TV screens, movie screens, the screens of your phone and your instant messaging and your computer, all of these things have laid out in front of us a kind of medium, which is very quick, and whose natural temperature seems to me very high. I think it is true that most of us at this convention are trying to think in other terms. So one of the consequences that I have been considering is what is it that we still do that screen culture doesn't do?
And the strange answer that I've come up for myself, or one of the strange answers is slowness. It does seem to me that one of the features of writing that I have come to look for and to want is not the story that moves along very, very quickly. I mean, to what we think of as airport reading. There's another kind of writing that spends time on digressions, that spends time on unnecessary details, that spends time finally on what it feels like to be alive at a time when everything except you is speeding up. To the degree that the writing that many of us are doing is meant also to give a sense of what it is to be alive at this time.
I've thought if we save our interiority through the book, it means that some sense of the time, of our own time may also be preserved. There's an essay in Burning Down the House called Slowness, which is in part about the fiction of a writer who isn't much read anymore, Wright Morris. But Morris loved slow scenes. He was a photographer and he loved the feeling of having nowhere better to get to and nothing better to think about than what was right in front of you right now.
I'll ask another question about what's happening now. I read Burning Down the House and was intrigued by the idea, the dysfunctional narrative that you've identified as stories without accountability say, trickling down from Richard Nixon, Reagan and Bush. Are you watching Obama now and seeing a different-
Oh, you bet I am. I came in for a lot of abuse and actually one or two hate mails when that essay came out because I've been alive during these amazing times when ... Actually there's someone in the audience who was present when this happened in 1968, a teacher of mine said, "Just think Charles, you've seen the worst president of your adult life just resign." He meant LBJ. No. And you know what I had seen was in the presidency of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush and Bill Clinton, and then the second George Bush, something would go wrong. And I mean, what would you hear? That weasel phrase, "Mistakes were made."
There was never the sense that I made them. Maybe you made them, but I didn't make them. And I thought that there were ways in which this was having ramifications in the way people thought about narratives. I was noticing that in a lot of my classes, the stories were not about somebody who wanted to do something evil and bad and interesting. I'm all for characters misbehaving and getting into lots of trouble and then saying, "Yeah, yeah, I wanted to do that. Yeah, yeah." No, I mean things were happening to them. Air conditioners were falling out of buildings and landing on their heads and they were suffering.
And it's not a bad story, but it's not the most interesting kind of story. So I was suggesting to a lot of my students that you think of active protagonists who willingly want to get into trouble. The counter to this was that, I mean, I almost felt as if, I mean, this sounds absolutely grandiose, but I felt as if Obama had read my essay because within 10 days after he was inaugurated, he was saying, "I screwed up." It wasn't a very big mistake. It had something to do, something wrong in the vetting process. But I thought this is huge politically. And it's huge because our leader is taking responsibility for a bad outcome. I hadn't seen it in 30 years. It was totally new. You couldn't think of something more remarkable to say than that. It's a long roundabout way of answering your question.
Yeah. And how long it'll take to begin to trickle into stories and narratives now?
Well, it all has to do with the way in which we conceive of stories and how to tell them and what sorts of protagonists we think of as being interesting. And this goes back to discussions that all of you have thought about and that we've all considered the victim as hero and the degree to which that sustains interest.
Can I ask you about stealing souls?
Yeah. What's your question?
Obviously goggles lost souls, but more about when I read Feast of Love and The Soul Thief, you read about the soul more than any writer I've encountered in a while, even using the soul in a description of the character. Any just comment about why, what's led you to that?
These are easy questions you're asking me. I always thought functionally of the soul as the way you feel to yourself when no one is watching. When no one is asking you who you are the way that you feel to yourself, the sort of person you feel yourself to be when you're not displaying that self to anyone. That's the part that ought to be precious to you and that you can't sell. It can't be traded away. It has nothing to do with identity theft as in the sale or the theft of a Visa card. And I had thought about this a lot. How much time do we have? Because when I was a young writer, as many of you are young writers, and I had very few readers for my work, I had a brilliant friend in Southern California to whom I was then sending manuscripts and he would call me up and in a sepulchral voice would say, "Charlie, I want to talk to you about your work."
And the word spinning would start and he would say, "I can tell that you don't want to be a revolutionary writer. I can tell you want to be a rotational writer." "What's that, Michael?" "Oh, a rotational writer is one who spins on a pivot like a revolving door." And I thought, that's the most brilliant thing I've ever heard in my life. That's what I wanted to be a rotational writer. By God, bring it on rotational writing. And then I'd hang up and half an hour would go by and I would think, "What was he talking about? What's a rotational writer? I have no idea what a rotational writer is." And it took me a long time before I saw that instead of being brilliant, he was actually suffering from a thought disorder. But by that time, it was too late. And I had found out that for two years he had been going around southern California with my manuscripts saying that he had written them and that he was Charles Baxter.
So if you lived in the Los Angeles area and went out to, let's say Venice, to the, what was it? I can't remember. It was little, I can't remember the name of the literary Beyond Broke Tonight, Charles Baxter. And he'd got up and read. And the interesting thing about this was that it happened to me about 20 years ago, but it weighed on me and it took me about 20 years before I could figure out how to write about it. This sort of thing doesn't happen to people very often. And so I thought, "How am I going to make it interesting for anyone else?"
Well, the truth is that when we are in our late adolescence, we model ourselves on people. I want to be like that person. I want to be like that person. It's just that usually you outgrow that and this guy never did. So The Soul Thief is very much about having something really in here taken away by someone who wanted to acquire who I was. In a way, what I'm saying is that all of these questions of soul became very practical to me. They were basically pragmatic. People would call up the house and say, "Is there a real Charles Baxter there?" "Well, as real as I get," I would say. And it's that point where identity slips into whatever it is that you are to yourself.
I'll ask you a tougher question. Is there a story or a book that you want to write but I think that you'll never write and why?
By now, I've probably written a couple of books that I shouldn't have written, and the first three novels that I wrote that weren't published probably constitute that. I've been tempted at various times to write a memoir and I know I never will. And there are a few stories that in some ways I think of as being the coloration of them is so dark. In a very real way, I don't want to tell those stories.
Somebody had read The Soul Thief lately and hadn't liked it and said, "Where do you find a model for a book like that? Is there any model for something like that? And I said, "Yeah, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare." I mean, not that I'm comparing myself to these writers, but when you have these sort of demonic characters and you want to write about them and you know the characters are not going to be likable particularly, and you have to set them in some kind of medium where the reader will still be interested in them, that territory is a long way around answering your question. And also, there are a couple of things in my background where I haven't been able to figure out how to disguise what I actually saw, the autobiographical things. And I'm just leaving it alone.
Wanted to ask you about layering in Feast of Love. And by layering, what I'm getting at is sometimes we'll get Bradley Smith's version of being with his first wife and then we'll get the first wife's version. And I'm asking the question because it came up in a workshop last week with a student about many characters and versions of the truth. Is there a strategy or something you keep in mind to limit the amounts of variations or versions of the truth in the book?
Well, it's something that I've done off and on since my first novel, First Light. I was much more interested in those days in stories that overlapped and the way it seemed like a great new insight to me in those days that different people see the same events in different ways. But there isn't a single person in this audience I don't think, who doesn't already realize that. So the only way to make that work is if the different points of view are out of alignment in a way that's interesting, that somebody is seeing something, let's say a traffic accident very much in the light of his or her own needs. And so I don't do that too much anymore. It seems more a trick of point of view than anything else.
I've seen in your essays, you're an admirer of, I would say the avant-gard are obviously a fan of Donald Barthelme. And for that, I'd also describe it as you're an admirer of literary innovation and specifically thinking of The Soul Thief. I'm thinking of the twist when, I won't give away the twist if you haven't read the book, there's a creative twist in there. But my question is, for something long, like a novel, are you thinking it out beforehand or are you finding working out the innovation as you go? Or do you think it out?
I've never known how to write a book when I started it. I've always had to find the way, and I've always struggled terribly to find the form that any particular book has had to take. This seems to me probably not the best way to go about writing a novel. I imagine that writers who outline everything and know exactly where the book is going to go can make more shapely fiction than I do. But for me, the material is always the writer's best friend, and the material must always dictate the form, and I start where I can and I sail off in the direction of what I have to discover.
I didn't want to have what seemed like a trick at the end of The Soul Thief. I wanted the discovery at the end of that book to be both, well, Sam Shepherd has a nice definition of the right dramatic turn, he says it's both surprising and inevitable. Not just surprising because it's not that hard to surprise a reader, but if something is both surprising and inevitable, it means the story had to go in exactly that way. But you may not have been paying quite enough attention to all the hints that were given to you that it would go that way. And for my own novel, when reviewers said, "Well, you can see this coming,"
I felt, "You bet. You bet you could see it coming." I'm not writing a trick novel here. I'm writing something about how someone takes on somebody else's identity, and that's bound to be reflected in the point of view, choices in the book. But I hadn't had that figured all out when I started it. I was unpresentable when I started writing that book because I was in such despair about how to write it. I'm ordinarily a nice guy, but that's never true when I start a new book. I'm just horrible to be around because I have to work it out. I can't work it out. I don't know how to do it, and I'm antisocial. So I'll let you know when these times come upon me so you don't run into me then.
I wanted to ask you about your fascination with the Midwest, and I see it as different. You're certainly not writing the fields in the pastures, but post-industrial Midwest. And do you want that landscape to be, I'm thinking of one of your essays where you talk about the woods and Flannery O'Connor's, A Good Man Is Hard to Find come alive or is it a little different for you about what you want setting to do?
Well, I mean, I'm a Midwestern writer, and Stu Dybek is a Chicago writer. But for him, I mean, in one way, the great discovery is that Chicago isn't a shabby city. It's a city of wonders and of enchantment, almost for him. I have always felt that no matter where I went to, I was always a mid-westerner that the Midwest was my imagination's home. When I started daydreaming, it was always about the landscapes where I had spent a lot of time where I had been a boy, and what I saw were on the one hand, these landscapes in semi-rural Minnesota. And then as I grew older, the rust belt areas that you're talking about, I once asked William Maxwell about his work, and he said, "I was always a mid-westerner, no matter where I was." And I said to him, "Well, I don't want to be taken for a provincial."
And Maxwell said, "Oh, I do." But it can sometimes bounce back on you. One of my books, I think it was A Relative Stranger, was reviewed in the Seattle News Chronicle in the first line in the review said, "Although Charles Baxter's characters are from the Midwest, they are nevertheless quite varied and interesting." Just knife in the heart. And one of the preoccupations, one of the preconceptions prejudice is that we're all dealing with, if we write about the Midwest, is that people here are simple and dull and that they live in the Midwest because they don't know any better.
If they knew anything about the world at all, they would pack and move to the Bay Area or something like that. And so what I'm trying to do is, in a way, because the Midwest has always been such a wonderful locale for literature anyway, I'm trying to bring to it the sense that here, as is the case anywhere else, people behave and act with remarkable interest and subtlety as they do everywhere else.
I'm going to close by asking you one last question. And James McPherson wanted me to thank you for being in here. And I told him I'd been reading your craft essays, and one of the essays talks about fascination with objects. And he's trying to figure out now why ordinary people are throwing shoes at political leaders. This is a funny riff question.
Oh, well, that one I can explain.
All right. Let's see.
Well, I mean, apparently in Arabic culture, the shoe is the object that carries with it the greatest sense of contempt. I mean, I think that the truth is we are all surrounded by objects. We don't think about them enough. I mean, has anyone considered how strange it is that we're sitting in this room, which looks like pre-revolutionary Russia? What am I bid for this beautiful [inaudible 01:10:29] chandelier? And I try to get into my work, the sense that the stories are peopled not only by people, but peopled also by the objects with which, particularly as Americans, we are filling, if not glutting our lives. And under conditions like that, as David Foster Wallace and George Saunders and many others know perfectly well, the objects take on a life of their own. We all know it. We all know it. And to the degree that we give life to the objects, we may be diminishing our own lives. But that's something true of our time and it's something I've been trying to get into my own fiction.
Thank you so much.
Oh, thank you. Thank you all for coming.
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