December 2011 interview with Dikran Karagueuzian
DK: Why do you write?
JL: A question I ask myself every time I sit down to do it. Flannery O’Connor was once asked that question and she answered in her rather abrupt way, “Because I’m good at it.” And of course she was, and only a great writer could get away with saying that. What I usually say is this: I write because I want to make a new thing, a good thing that will entertain and, I hope, disturb.
My father was an engineer and a carpenter. My mother was a pianist. They both painted. I can’t build things at all and I can’t paint particularly well. Nor can I sing or dance. And so I make little pieces of fiction. I used to write poems when I first began, then I wrote a novel, and after I wrote a novel I was finally able to write a short story. For a long time I wrote only short stories. For me writing is another way of making a new thing.
DK: This construction that you refer to, that you want to “make” or “create” something: what is the motivation behind it?
JL: Let me start negatively. I don’t write for lots of money. If I did I would be extremely disappointed. Or for prizes, or for therapy, or to impress people with how smart I am. I write because I get pleasure and satisfaction from the process of writing rather than from publication itself. Publication provides its own kettle of snakes. The satisfaction in publishing something is invariably marred by disappointment. First of all, disappointment that the work itself is not the perfect thing it was in your mind. Then disappointment that it isn’t received with the intelligence you think you put into it. Disappointment that people don’t buy it and read it in great masses. Disappointment that reviewers misinterpret it completely. As an example, some anonymous person said on Amazon about The Miracle: “This is a terrible book about the faults L’Heureux finds with the Roman Catholic church, but it doesn’t matter because he’s an awful writer anyway.” (Laughs) He said it better, as I recall, but that in essence was his review. Actually, I’ve been lucky with reviewers. All my books, even the four volumes of poetry, have been reviewed in the New York Times, and rather favorably too, so I have no quarrel with reviewers. Nonetheless, publication is not one of the great pleasures of writing.
One of the genuine pleasures of writing comes when you sit down with no feeling of inspiration whatsoever and you put in your two or three hours of work, and something far better than you could have hoped—something really good—appears on the page. And it’s suddenly thrilling. For that moment you think you’re going to pass as a writer. Nobody will have found you out when they read this passage. The other passages will tell them everything they suspected about you and your ability or lack of it, but this passage is the work of a real writer. It’s exciting to see something better than yourself emerge on the page. Better than you could have expected.
DK: When did you first realize that you ought to become a writer?
JL: I was very, very young. I had a cousin who was a painter, an artist, and he was at least ten years older than I. Maybe more. I remember the awe and respect with which my parents and his parents regarded his work. And with good reason, since he became a very fine artist. Early on in his career he got sidetracked into advertising and in his twenties he became a vice-president of J. Walter Thompson, but he remained a fine painter all the same. Anyhow it was clear to me that to make a painting was a very exciting thing. I realized soon enough, however, that I couldn’t draw well and I couldn’t paint worth a damn. But I did have some ability to make up things, little poems and stories that I brought to school to show Miss Connolly—the love of my life in the fourth grade—and she encouraged me to write more. Also there were no kids my age where I lived so I read all the time, and if books are your life, that has its own effect.
I remember one day when I had finished the last of The Hardy Boys series and there were no more to read and I thought, well, I wonder if I could write one. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old, but I remember thinking, why not? I didn’t tell anybody about this. It would’ve seemed vain or self-indulgent or indicated a lack of humility that was not thought well of in my family. Even to me it seemed pretentious to presume I could write a book. Still, I didn’t see why I shouldn’t fiddle around with it so long as I didn’t tell anybody. I got serious about it by the time I was in college. In fact I published my first poem in my freshman year: it was a sonnet that appeared under another guy’s name. He was in an advanced class—I was in the B section—and they had to write a sonnet. I wrote it and he handed it in and the professor asked if he could publish it in the college magazine. There was no way out for either of us. I don’t remember the guy’s name or the title of the poem, but my guess is that it was a metrically exact and thoroughly awful sonnet.
DK: At this point it was not clear to you whether you’d stay with poetry or you’d be going on to fiction?
JL: Oh, I didn’t think of myself as a writer of any kind. I was just a kid fooling around. I always wanted to write fiction, but even a short story was much too ambitious for me. I didn’t know basic things like plot development or point of view or the difference between scene and narrative. I just knew that whenever I started writing a story, it all fizzled by the second or third page. I was writing sketches because I had nothing to say, really. But in poetry I found a form that was sufficiently small—a lyric poem, a 14 or 16 line poem—to admit of a single sensibility and a single tone that came together in a whole that could be moving or funny. The big revelation for me was that it was all right to be funny. And I made that discovery when I was still writing poetry.
DK: So you had that funny, cynical side even then.
JL: Ironic, rather than cynical.
DK: Early on, in your childhood.
JL: As a young man. Yeah. I was in my twenties when I began to publish poems regularly, in The Atlantic first and then in a lot of quarterlies.
DK: I want to go back to the business of writing. How one develops the desire to write. William Maxwell, for example, in his Paris Review interview, talks about making the past right—remedying the past—or something to that effect.
JL: Yes, that was interesting.
DK: My take on that personally is this: something in the past has been missed and the author tries to recreate that past and the lost feeling that accompanied it. Something important. For moral reasons. It’s not like you missed a party . . .
DK: He wants to make amends with the past. What is your reaction to that?
JL: Well, when I read the Maxwell interview I thought this must be the response of a man who comes very late to writing and who feels the need for a corrective to his life. I think most writers begin early and they aren’t so much correcting a life as just trying to understand it. Or perhaps they’re trying to come to terms with defects of character or personality or will that have changed their lives or could change their lives. After all, the possible is not only a source of hope; it’s a source of horror as well.
Joyce Carol Oates offers a good example of what I’m trying to get at. My wife and I were having dinner with Joyce and her husband, Ray Smith, in London—this was in 1971—and it was the first time we’d met face to face, though we had corresponded when I was a staff editor at The Atlantic. Ray and I were drinking brandy, and Joyce doesn’t drink at all. All of a sudden she said, “Let me just smell that so I can see what it’s like.” She took my brandy and she smelled it and suddenly, as we sat there at dinner in Simple Simon’s, she turned into another person. Her face convulsed and she shook her head violently and said, “Oh, if I ever touched that I could become anything, I could do anything. Something terrible could happen.” And I could see that something terrible was happening right there in her imagination. It was a revelation to me of what lay beneath a very lovely, very placid surface of Joyce Oates. She’s a lovely, sane, sophisticated woman. She’s nothing like her fiction. She’s utterly self-possessed, utterly calm. But she writes out of the possible Joyce Oates that in another world could exist and could murder people and commit arson and God knows what kind of horrible criminal acts. She has a vast number of possible selves—as did Chekhov and Dickens and Tolstoy—and she puts them in situations that develop into those myriad, wonderful novels she’s produced.
DK: I was taken by her fiction at one time. I haven’t read everything she’s written.
JL: Who has? She has more than 300 listings in the Stanford library catalogue.
DK: But what you describe seems perfectly in character for her. It’s something that doesn’t surprise me. I would expect a reaction like that. But, be that as it may, we were talking about the Maxwell interview.
JL: Right. I was suggesting that most writers, and I among them, write from a perceived absence—a character deficiency or will deficiency or moral deficiency—and they draw on that to create the reality of their characters. I think this is true: in every fictional character there is some deficiency that you can probably find in the author as well. A real or imagined deficiency.
DK: So in some sense you’re agreeing with what Maxwell says and what I’m broadly interpreting.
JL: No. These are two different things. Maxwell is talking about something in his past life that he’s remedying in his present life. I’m talking about the phenomenon that a character becomes real only when you give him something in you that you don’t like about yourself. In The Shrine at Altamira the kind of jealousy that drives Whitaker to set his own child on fire and, later, the cowardice that keeps him fighting for his life in jail—if it is cowardice and not just the desire to live—is something that I don’t think I’m guilty of, but I see that I’m capable of it. If put in his situation, I might react as he did. Not by burning my child, but I might experience that same kind of . . . I know what jealousy is because I have felt it. It’s not a beautiful feeling.
What I mean to say is that a character in my fiction never takes on a palpable reality until I give it some note of unpleasantness—that comes from me, that’s part of my character, really or potentially. The reader presumes it’s just another rotten thing about this character, but really it’s a rotten thing about me.
DK: So, in short, you write because . . . ?
JL: I write for the satisfactions provided by the process itself and because there’s a great pleasure in seeing a piece of work that’s truly finished. Or as finished as I can make it. A book that’s good in itself and good to read.
DK: And among your books which do you think are the most finished?
JL: One should never disown one’s children, but my favorites—because they seem to me to accomplish what I set out to do—are perhaps A Woman Run Mad, The Handmaid of Desire, and The Shrine at Altamira.
DK: That’s three out of seventeen.
JL: Three is a lot. And some of my short stories, “The Comedian,” for instance, and “The Anatomy of Desire.”
DK: Let me go to another writer who once told me that the writer has a secret wish to humiliate himself.
JL: That’s plain silly. That’s like saying you write to express your emotions or to practice therapy . . . as if you exorcise the desire to murder your wife by writing about a man who actually does murder his wife.
I don’t know any writer who’s eager for humiliation. From a funny point of view, though, you might say that every time you publish something you risk humiliation. People say, “I read your book.” And the temptation is to reply, “Oh? Did you like it?” And they’re not reluctant to say, “No, I didn’t.” Who needs that kind of humiliation? “I saw your baby. It’s ugly.”
DK: Anyway, to continue with the subject of writing, you mentioned that the author assumes different personalities.
JL: I was talking about Oates but it’s true of all fiction writers from Jane Austen to William Faulkner to Z.Z. Packer.
DK: How does that work for you, assuming different personalities?
JL: I’m glad you asked that because I wouldn’t have thought to talk about it, and it’s kind of important. It’s taken for granted that you assume the personality and the experience of the main character you’re writing about at a given moment. But when you’re writing a scene with more than one character, the temptation is to forget the point of view, the feelings, the desires, of the lesser character in that scene. What you have to do is stop and quite consciously think yourself into the inferior position. To become the minor character.
Chekhov never created a character who thinks of himself as a minor element in the story. Every character for him is the major character because each individual is the center of his own life. When I’m teaching drama I always point out that when Ibsen’s characters leave the scene, they go offstage but when Chekhov’s characters leave the scene, they go on to the rest of their lives. Back to the immediate point: you have to become all of the characters, especially in an intense, emotional scene. It can be exhausting, even depressing.
DK: You mentioned you were depressed at one point.
JL: Yes, I had a kind of emotional collapse—certainly not a breakdown, but a deep, deep depression—when I got half way through The Shrine at Altamira. I had just finished the burning scene where Whitaker sets fire to his son. I went to see a psychiatrist I had seen years and years earlier. Did I tell you all this?
DK: Not in any detail.
JL: Okay. I went to see him and he asked, “How are you?” and I said, “I’m fine. Well, actually, I’m not fine. I’m terribly depressed.” He asked what was going on in my life that might account for that and I told him about the book I was writing. When I got as far as the scene where Whitaker sets fire to his son, he said, “Well, for God’s sake, no wonder you’re depressed! Just stop writing the book. No one needs this book.” And I realized then that the psychiatrist and I had come to a parting of the ways. He was a very smart man and I liked him a lot and I realized he was quite right. If I wanted to stop being depressed, I should walk away from the book, but by this time I was completely committed to it and I had to fight it through to the end. Finally, of course, the depression lifted.
I suppose that in a certain way it’s like being an actor. You live with Macbeth long enough and you find yourself going home with murderous tendencies.
DK: Maybe this is a frivolous question, but after a writing session—say, something less intense than The Shrine at Altamira—how long does the experience stay with you? You create a character, a scene, a situation, and you get involved for the two or three hours that you’re working, and does the world just stop?
JL: In a way it does stop. I remember the first time I experienced that. I was still in the Jesuits, living in a Jesuit house at Harvard and rewriting a novel called Tight White Collar, about a priest who decides he has to leave the priesthood. In those liberated days—it was the ‘60s—we had drinks from 5:30 to 6:00 to wind up the teaching part of the day. Wild times. I had been working all afternoon and about 5:45 I went down to the rec room and was astonished to see the Jesuit priests who lived there and not the people I had been writing about in my fiction. For a brief moment I felt as if I was in a room full of strangers. It’s never happened quite like that again, though I think you always get subsumed into the book you’re writing and for a lot longer than the two or three hours when you’re at work.
DK: When do you actually put in these two or three hours?
JL: First off, I can’t write while I’m teaching. When I’m writing, I do nothing else. I write in the morning, and in the afternoon I fiddle around—that is to say, I do errands, go to the library and look up things, because there’s always something you’ve got to research when you’re writing a book, no matter how contemporary the setting. In the evening I’ll watch some television or a movie with my wife, or see friends or have dinner or whatever. And then before bed, I’ll spend an hour or so going over what I wrote that day, so that on the next morning it’ll all be fresh in my mind. But I’m never really free of the book.
I talked to Wally Stegner about this once and he was astonished, since of course he wrote every day of the year, except on Christmas. He shook his head as if I was a puzzling and not very healthy example of what writing could do to you. And of course he produced a great body of work.
DK: Even now, late in your career, you can’t write and teach at the same time? How do you get things done?
JL: Actually, I’m semi-retired now and I teach only the graduate writing workshop, three hours every Wednesday afternoon. I save Monday through Wednesday for the workshop—reading and commenting on the manuscripts—and I’m free to write during the rest of the week. Some people aren’t as easily distracted as I am. Ron Hansen tells me that John Irving—they used to wrestle together—has a study and a library and God knows how many little work rooms, but he chooses to write at the kitchen table with people coming and going and carrying on. Irving must have an unusual ability to concentrate. Not me. Knowing I’ve got a lunch date on Wednesday will make writing on Monday and Tuesday that much more difficult. It’s neurotic, I know, but that’s how it is.
DK: I’m curious about your reaction to the writer who says, “I need to have a job in order to be able to write.”
JL: I understand that and I feel the same way. I could never have survived as a writer if I had just taught writing. I need the input of real literature and dealing with it as a teacher must: interpreting it, showing why this book is unique and precious, how it got put together, and why it matters to us. Great writing provides a corrective to the merely good. I don’t know how these young people—the Jones Lecturers—teach writing all day and then go home and write.
DK: Isaac Bashevis Singer says, roughly speaking, that he writes from 9 to 5, then gets on the subway and goes home. And the next morning he starts all over again.
JL: I don’t know how that’s humanly possible, although I heard Roddy Doyle claim something similar. He writes all day long.
DK: This was in reference to his job with a Yiddish-language newspaper. Singer’s, I mean.
JL: Well, that’s different, but it’s still terrible. Or heroic, depending on how you look at it.
DK: Perhaps the stimulus he gets from interacting with other people is something he needs in order to write about those people, to create the interaction of everyday life.
JL: This is Isaac we’re talking about? Not his brother Joseph?
JL: Isaac. I taught his niece, Brett Singer, who wrote The Petting Zoo. She once told me that Isaac does nothing but sit in his pajamas all day long, writing. There are lots of people who write all day long and there are some—Graham Greene comes to mind—who work a little each day and produce an astonishing body of work. What matters isn’t how much time you put in but the quality of work that comes out. Some writers hold down demanding jobs and still manage to write fine stuff. Editors somehow do it. E. L. Doctorow did it for years.
DK: Maxwell too.
JL: Maxwell is a perfect example. He’s a very slow worker. He’s a quiet writer, as in So Long, See You Tomorrow. He’s not like Doctorow, who is brilliant and showy . . . in the best way, I mean. Think of Ragtime.
DK: I suppose the amount of time you spend is not so important.
JL: No, but it’s interesting that every writer writes differently. Proust had to be in a cork-lined room to get anything down on paper and others can write on the subway. If I’m really on—despite what I said earlier about distractions—if I’m really on, I can write anywhere. Two of my novels I’ve begun on an airplane, An Honorable Profession and The Handmaid of Desire. Begun in long hand, in a notebook, as if writing weren’t the most secret of acts.
DK: I was going to ask about that. How do you start a novel?
JL: Ah! After I got over the notion that somehow a novel has to come out of me and my personal experience but in fact could come out of something in the newspaper or from a Jamesian dinner conversation, I began to see possibilities for stories and novels everywhere I looked. The central experience didn’t have to be my own. What did have to be my own were the moral issues raised in the novel, though I hate the use of “moral” in this context; “questions of integrity” would be more exact.
An example: I was visiting Boston and watching television when there was a news flash—they had just arrested a high school teacher in front of his class on the grounds of molestation . . . “further details this evening at six.” I thought, why would they arrest him in front of his class rather than in the Principal’s office? What if he’s innocent? How will he ever face a class again, innocent or not? And instantly it came to me, there’s a novel in that: somebody is accused of a crime and has to deal with the consequences of that accusation. Suppose he’s not guilty of this particular thing, but is in fact guilty of something else, perhaps a number of things. I thought about that a lot, though I did nothing with it because I was teaching at the time. About a year later I began to write the book, An Honorable Profession. It’s about a high school teacher who is taking care of his dying mother and whose life is scattered in every direction. He’s using a woman who takes care of his mother—using her for sex—and going to see his mother at the New England Medical Center right next to the red light district in Boston. Then one night, tired of being the dutiful son, he sets out looking for trouble and discovers a gay bar where he gets himself picked up for a one-night stand with some guy. Now he feels guilty for using the woman for sex and terribly guilty about the gay fling he’s had, and so when he’s suddenly accused of molesting a boy at school—though he hasn’t done it, and couldn’t imagine it—he finds himself caught in this double bind: he’s absolutely innocent of the crime itself but he’s haunted by internal guilt for any number of other things . . . as indeed he should be. So the novel starts with a man falsely accused but it becomes a study in the rich varieties of guilt.
When I sat down to write, I knew I had the makings of a novel here. I had been a Jesuit for seventeen years and had a life-long preoccupation with guilt: not having been the kind of Jesuit I wanted to be, not going out to people as generously as I should have, not living up to my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Go ahead, heap it on, it’s just guilt. Catholics of my age and persuasion know guilt intimately. So I had plenty to draw upon, and then all I had to do was project myself into the world of a high school teacher. Which was easy since I had been a high school teacher for three years, two at Fairfield Prep and one at Boston College High School. I knew what that world was like. I knew how small and mean it could be. And I knew the kids. So I only had to set the man down in a situation where he could be accused of molestation, and let the consequences unfold. Shall I go on?
JL: Another example. The Shrine at Altamira came to me—whole—one day after I’d seen on television that a man had set fire to his son to get even with his wife. They flashed the boy’s picture on the screen, and it was so upsetting and horrible that I actually got up and turned off the television. But over the next weeks the story kept coming back, and I never watched it, but I recall thinking that some fool is going to write a novel about this when in fact there is no human way to comprehend it. You’d have to be God or have knowledge of God’s intentions. Some inexplicable, redemptive act. And as soon as I thought that, I knew the ending of the novel. It’s the only novel I’ve ever begun knowing clearly what the ending would be, but of course I had no idea how to get there. I knew only that it would have to end in an act of complete renunciation of the self. “Greater love than this no man hath, that he lay down his life for his friend.” An act as apparently senseless as submitting to crucifixion.
That’s a terribly long answer. I’m sorry.
DK: Not at all. It sounds like it’s very painful for you to write scenes like that burning scene.
JL: Yes, but—however painful—the only question is “Can I get it right?” So that the reader will feel the pain.
DK: So there’s a little sadism there.
JL: It’s not sadism; it’s not sadism at all; it’s a question of artistic control. I want to hold the emotion at a distance so I can capture it and make you feel how terrible it is. I don’t think it’s sadistic to make someone feel strongly about human cruelty; think of Oedipus, think of Medea. Sadism is what went on at Abu Ghraib and continues to go on—perhaps—at Guantanamo Bay. The Holocaust was sadistic; writing about the horrors of the Holocaust serves to remind us of human cruelty at its extreme. It’s a corrective to what we are and how we act.
Great writing—I’m talking about the Greeks now, not about my own writing—great writing should upset you. It should leave you uncertain about your held truths and make you question, “How do I live my life?” or “How am I living this moment of my life?” That’s not sadistic. That’s something a writer can offer you: the opportunity to be really upset about yourself. (Laughs.)
DK: On the question of feelings and writing: do you have to feel a certain way in order to sit down and write?
JL: No, no, no. If that were the case, I’d never sit down and write at all. There’d always be some reason not to write. When I’m doing a book, I sit down every morning, Monday through Friday, and there are days when I say, “Oh, please God, strike me dead instead of letting me go on with this.” In fact, most days I don’t feel like writing. Some days, in the shower usually, I get an insight into what I’m actually doing instead of what I think I’m doing, and it’s kind of exciting: maybe something wonderful will happen at the computer today. But you can’t expect that every day. If you get it just once in a while, that will sustain you.
DK: I think it’s Robert Stone who said that sometimes he sits in front of his typewriter—or, I suppose, computer—and just stares at it or at the wall, and when he’s feeling that way, sometimes he reads the Bible.
JL: A lot of people do that, I’m told. Read something that will jump start them. I used to read “In the Heart of the Heart of the County” by William Gass. I’ve still never read the whole thing, though I’ve read the first few pages more than twenty times.
DK: I suppose there are lots of tricks writers use to keep working even when they don’t feel like it.
JL: Flannery O’Connor once said that she kept a pail of water under her desk and sat with her feet in it. That way it was more trouble to get up and do something else than to just sit there and write.
DK: That reminds me of a writer I know who says there are times when he can’t write at all and who nevertheless forces himself to sit there instead of getting up and going to the beach or doing something else. He just sits there.
JL: That’s what I do, mostly.
DK: Is that how we should end this interview, with you just sitting there?
JL: Just sitting there working, I would hope.