On the Fencing Strip: Margot Singer Interviews Peter Grandbois
By Margot SingerSeptember 27, 2018
In 2010, two years before his return to fencing, Peter joined the faculty at Denison University, where we both teach writing and literature. After he went back to fencing, I’d find myself sitting in his office listening to colorful stories about the coaches and the competitors, descriptions of injuries and pain, accounts of frustration and success. I was fascinated by this strange world of sword fighting that I’d previously associated with Shakespeare, Zorro, and The Princess Bride. One day, I suggested that Peter write a book about his return to competitive fencing at age 50. He gave me a sharp look. “I will,” he said.
That book, Kissing the Lobster, is as raw and visceral and unflinching as a swordfight. It’s about fencing, but as with all good writing, fencing provides a metaphor for the bigger issues Grandbois sets out to explore. As fencers scream when they score a touch, so this memoir is a cry in the face of all that is terrifying in our lives. It’s also humble, hopeful, and wise.
MARGOT SINGER: Kissing the Lobster draws a strong connection between the competitive drive that fuels your fencing and the creative urge that compels you to write. Disappointment, suffering, and failure are your constant companions in both pursuits, and yet from the pain comes insight, too. How much of that insight came out of the process of writing this book?
PETER GRANDBOIS: This book was written during a particularly difficult five-year period in my life, a time when my children suffered from some serious mental health issues, when my marriage was in jeopardy, and when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out of my own depression. I’d reached the age of 50, and nothing made sense to me. So the desire to understand how life can fall apart drove the writing of the book. That’s why writers write, I think — because they want the answers to questions that gnaw at them, questions they obsess over late into the night. If they’re good questions (and they probably wouldn’t keep the writer awake if they weren’t) then they don’t have easy answers. They may not have answers at all. Maybe the best a writer can hope for is to refine the questions — or to uncover more of them.
I think I’m more proud of this book than any book I’ve written, and maybe that’s because I don’t shy away from looking at myself and my role in the breakdown of my family. Had I been honest in my marriage? Had I acted with honor or humility in my relations with others? When had I ever really shown courage in anything? In what ways had I been merciful with my children or even with myself? Each essay allowed me to look at a small piece of myself as if under a microscope. What I found surprised me. And the process of writing had everything to do with that.
The book is a sequel of sorts to your earlier memoir, The Arsenic Lobster. What’s up with the lobsters? What do the titles mean?
For a very long time I’ve been interested in flamenco, and the gypsies talk about the necessity of duende when singing, dancing, or playing flamenco. Well, I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had about what duende means. It’s one of those indefinable terms that usually gets translated as something like “living with death at your heels.” In his book In Search of Duende, the poet Federico García Lorca describes it as having a giant, arsenic lobster hanging over your head. That image explained the concept better than any definition I’d heard so I stole it as the title of my first memoir, which chronicles much of my youth and the need to push back against my middle-class, suburban upbringing — sometimes in dangerous ways. As you mention, Kissing the Lobster can be read as a sequel, though it’s meant to stand on its own. In this book, I’m reflecting on what it means to age, to move closer to death, i.e., to kiss the lobster.
You structure the book around essays or chapters that bear titles drawn from the ancient samurai code (for example, Justice, Courage, Mercy, Courtesy, et cetera), with a few of your own added to the mix (including Pain, Exhaustion, Passion, and Humility). What led you to this structure? More broadly, how do you think about structure in creative nonfiction?
I wanted to use fencing as a lens through which to examine what it means to get older in America — in a society that prizes youth above all. Once I had my governing metaphor, I set about looking for a structure that would allow me to play with swords. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with Japanese culture, and the samurai in particular, so it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the Bushido code — eight precepts that guide samurai behavior. I immediately loved the challenge of writing essays around such abstract concepts as “Justice” and “Mercy,” et cetera, But I knew that eight essays would not make a book, and I had a lot more to say about the compromises, sacrifices, and failures that define us as we age. The first essay I wrote (and the first one in the book) is the piece on pain. It seemed an essential starting point, if, hopefully, I was going to move out of that pain or at least learn to cope with it by the end.
I love nonfiction because, like poetry, it allows me to play with form. You don’t have the slave driver of plot that pushes fiction. Each essay in this book is structured differently (just as each poem can have a different form in a single collection). One essay takes the form of a stage play. Another is a call and response to quotes from famous people. Another jumps back and forth in time as if to follow the vagaries of memory, while another pairs the exhaustion of a single day with the exhaustion of a fencing bout. In each case, form was my first decision as a writer, and the content rose organically from there.
One of the two epigraphs from the book is from the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte and reads, “The fencing master does not sell himself. That’s his tragedy, and that is also his strength and his glory.” Why this epigraph?
George Carlin used to joke that fencing isn’t a sport because you can’t bet on it.
I’ve always been drawn to things that no one cares about and occupations that don’t make any money. If I stopped teaching or writing or fencing, the world would go on. It would be politics as usual. And yet, writing and fencing (and teaching) have been essential to my education. They’ve taught me how to be in the world. The fencing strip is a microcosm of life. When you fail on the strip, there’s nowhere to run. You can’t blame anyone or anything else. You are forced to face yourself. And because you’re intrinsically motivated, as opposed to doing it for the big bucks, you actually can. It’s the same with writing. If you’re true to each sentence, as opposed to trying to write the next best seller, then when you finish your morning session and read over what you’ve written with that cup of coffee in your hand, you’re not only able to sniff out the poor sentence or false sentiment, but you can also learn from them. These kinds of activities are essential precisely because they are the antidote to capitalism. We do them to be better human beings. We write, fence, teach for the love of it. That’s our tragedy and also our glory.
You are an incredibly prolific and wide-ranging writer: in addition to these two works of nonfiction, you have published two novels, six novellas, a book of poetry, a collection of flash fictions, and several plays! What draws you to working across the genres when so many writers restrict themselves to a narrower sphere?
That’s a great question. It might be smarter financially to write in the same genre. To write the same book over and over again. I think at some level all writers and artists do that. (Faulkner said he was just trying to answer the same questions with each book.) The good ones do it so well that we keep returning to their books. But the writers I love most are constantly reinventing themselves. For me, William Goyen represents the epitome of that kind of writer. Goyen wrote from the ’50s through the ’70s and was one of the great writers of the 20th century, though few people have heard of him. That’s because he didn’t turn himself into a commodity. He wrote in every genre, and even within his fiction, each book is completely different. His work reminds me that creativity rises out of the unknown. What I mean by that is we are closest to the creative process, to our deepest truths, when we are cursing and staring out the window, frustrated, or pacing the room with no idea what we’re going to write or paint. To sit in those moments and really listen, that’s scary, but that’s where the real work happens. Shifting genres forces me there. It forces me to remain uncomfortable.
What’s next, do you know? Fiction? Poetry? A play?
I just bought a Harley-Davidson, and I’m planning on doing a lot of riding throughout Ohio but also around Appalachia. I suspect a book will rise out of that. (I’ve always been a fan of William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways.) I’m sure I’ll also continue writing poetry. For some reason, poetry and creative nonfiction seem to me essential of late. That’s a strange thing to say since I’ve been a fiction writer most of my career. But for whatever reason, I’m less concerned with plot at this point in my career. Maybe it’s because as I cross the threshold of half a century, time seems to be speeding up. I’m feeling the pressure to get right to the heart of things — and poetry and creative nonfiction with the directness of their language and their malleability and infinite possibility of form seem to me the perfect vehicles. Maybe they’re the Harleys of the writing world — you can customize them to be anything you need them to be.
Margot Singer is the author of a novel, Underground Fugue (Melville House, 2017), winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for American Jewish fiction; a collection of short stories,The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; and co-editor, with Nicole Walker, of Bending Genre (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), a collection of essays on creative nonfiction.
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