LIKE MOST WRITERS, I logged a couple decades as an ardent reader before it occurred to me I could maybe write a book. I always thought of authors as a special category of anointed people, a group as impenetrable and fascinating as any secret society. I have a feeling Sean Carswell knows what I’m talking about.
Carswell is an established writer in his own right — he’s a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist with six books to his name — but his latest, The Metaphysical Ukulele, proves he’s still a literary superfan. The 12 stories in this collection center around some of Carswell’s favorite writers, and each one features an encounter with a ukulele, in some form or another. I love the beautiful specificity of this object — it’s like a muted post horn (Thomas Pynchon is one of the 12), a mark of kinship, an almost surreal element textually photoshopped into these writers’ lives. Carswell pays homage to these authors, melding their styles with his and painting them with remarkable texture and detail. The concept may sound pretty inside baseball, but the stories and prose are appealing enough that you don’t need deep literary knowledge to enjoy them (though there are so many Easter eggs — most of which I’m sure I didn’t find — that deep literary knowledge is rewarded).
I talked with Carswell about all things writing and ukulele.
STEPH CHA: Can you talk about the genesis of this collection? What was the first story, and was it always going to be part of this larger project?
SEAN CARSWELL: The Melville story was first. It happened spontaneously. I’d been doing a bunch of scholarship on Melville. One morning during that time, I was in a diner in New Mexico. The waitress told me that the kitchen was backed up about an hour. So I took out a notebook and started writing a story about Melville’s time in the Marquesas. The story got really fun for me once Melville found a ukulele.
I never intended to make this a collection. I wrote the stories between larger projects — novels I’ve been working on and various literary scholarship. They were a way to entertain myself and a handful of my writer friends. Every time I thought about consciously writing a collection, it stopped being fun. After five or six years, though, I had a dozen stories. All of the ones I’d sent out for publication got published. One won an award; two were anthologized. So, I decided, maybe a book about my favorite writers and their metaphysical ukuleles isn’t as absurd as I thought it was.
Ukuleles are a big part of my life. My wife grew up in Hawaii, and we go back there regularly. My brother-in-law Rien taught me to play at a family gathering 15 or 16 years ago. Since then, ukuleles have always been a part of time spent with family and loved ones.
I play a lot on my own, too. Being a professor can take a fair amount of mental energy. Sometimes, you just have to put your mind in another place. The uke helps me do that.
Also, there’s this: in the middle of writing the book, my father-in-law passed away. My wife and I went back for the funeral. Rien and his wife, Malama, asked me to play a song with them at the services. We practiced it a couple of times and performed at the church. Malama sang a Hawaiian song in Hawaiian. I played that song, listened to Malama’s singing, listened to Rien’s strumming so I could stay in time with him, and looked around that church where it seemed like every Filipino from the North Shore of Oahu was crying in front of me. It was devastating, but kind of beautiful, too. When I got back home and back to the collection, I realized that there could be something deep and poignant in a ukulele, if you let there be.
How did you decide which writers to write about? What roles did these writers play in your writing life?
I picked writers who did something stylistically that I wanted to learn how to do. That’s why I started with Melville. He has that pseudo-academic tone in the cetology chapters of Moby-Dick that just cracks me up. I paid homage to that in my Melville story. I also wanted to play around with Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and Richard Brautigan’s absurd poetics and Flannery O’Connor’s slow Southern drawl. So every author I wrote about was someone who was a huge influence on me and someone who has written several books that I’ve read. In most cases, I’ve read the author’s entire body of work.
Did you have any alternates? I’d read a story about Jim Ruland’s ukulele.
There were a few authors I tried to write about and couldn’t make it work. I tried to write a Toni Cade Bambara one several times. I tried Toshio Mori a few times, too. I think they’re two of the best short-story writers of the 20th century. In both cases, I just couldn’t blend their style with my voice. I don’t know why.
Even though the collection is done, I think about writing more. I don’t know that I’ll be able to get through this year without writing an Ali Smith ukulele story. Maybe I should do a Jim Ruland one, too. I’ve read just about everything he’s written, published or not. I’d read a ukulele story with him as a main character.
Some of these stories are more speculative than others. You definitely make good use of these authors’ biographies, when they’re available, but you also write about famous enigmas like Yōko Ogawa and Thomas Pynchon.
The Yōko Ogawa one was the toughest. There’s not much biographical information available on her — at least not that’s written in English. Still, it was important to me to write a story with her in it and try to emulate the daring she has as a writer. Inhabiting her style allowed me to do crazy things I’d be too self-conscious to do otherwise.
Pynchon is more elusive than Ogawa, but he’s also more famous in the United States. You can learn quite a bit about Pynchon’s biography, if you really want to. I’d rather not know that stuff. He wants to protect his privacy, and I appreciate that. I’m more interested in these fictional or subjunctive Pynchons that his fans create in their minds. Every Pynchon fan seems to have an idea or conspiracy theory about who he really is. I wanted to play with that side of his persona
How did you choose these characters’ ukulele moments?
Some of the events I knew about ahead of time, and I knew I wanted to write about them. From the first time I read about it in Chester Himes’s memoir, I’d wanted to fictionalize the day when Richard Wright sold him out to an FBI agent, then got drunk and yelled at James Baldwin all night. Same goes for the time when Raymond Chandler wouldn’t write the end of The Blue Dahlia and damn near shut down Paramount Studios with his refusal. Other stories came through the research.
Was there much research involved?
I spent a few months on each story, reading or rereading several books by the authors, reading scholarship about them, interviews they did, memoir pieces, biographies, everything. In some cases, I was meticulously accurate. The trees and shrubs in Flannery O’Connor’s yard are real and in the right place. I described her real dining room table. In other cases, if I wanted to change things for the story, I just changed them. That’s what fiction is for, right? So we can make up things to tell a better story.
Most writers, even the colorful ones, are known more for their work than for their character. What made you want to write about writers? What makes a writer interesting, aside from her work? And writing about 12 writers, did you find their concerns repeating or overlapping?
The act of writing is a lot of fun for me. It’s my favorite thing to do. But there’s also a real struggle behind it. You have to spend hours alone in a room, playing pretend in your mind, making up these worlds and characters and living in them instead of living in the world around you. It can get really lonely. It can feel a little absurd. I think every writer deals with this.
For most writers, too, there’s this sense of meaning. Writing can help us understand the most confusing aspects of relationships; it can help us investigate philosophical problems; it can be therapy. So I wanted to learn more about the writers who I think are among the greatest. I wanted to imagine a world where they went through the struggles and joys of not only being an artist, but also being this particular kind of artist.
I noticed you vary the style of your stories to fit with their subjects — your Raymond Chandler story is even narrated by an unnamed PI who sounds an awful lot like Philip Marlowe. How much did you look to your authors to dictate your form?
I looked to the authors a lot. All of the stories have several passages from their works that I slightly reshaped and folded into the narrative. I wanted to keep all the writers human, but I also wanted my love for them to make it onto the page.
Two of your subjects, Pam Houston and Patricia Geary, read their stories! Were you nervous about showing them? How did they react?
I was nervous. Definitely. In both stories, I made a little of their private lives public. It was really generous of them to let me do that. Neither one of them asked me to cut anything or cast them in a different light. It helps that both Pat and Pam don’t have huge egos.
The thing I worried about the most was in Pat’s story, [which was] about a best-selling author stealing the idea for a book from her and then making it a best seller. In real life, Pat was already 600 pages into writing this book when he started his novel and based it on the same characters and events. I didn’t name names, but it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who he is.
You appear as a character in a couple of these stories, including the final one in the collection, about Sean Carswell’s ukulele. Was this challenging? Was it fun? Did you have to lop off a metaphysical ear?
It was a lot of fun. The cameos in other stories are a subtle nod to Cervantes, who pops up all over Don Quixote. The Sean Carswell ukulele story is something else.
After I wrote the 11th story, I needed to write one about me. The 11th story I wrote — which is actually the second in the book — is about Leigh Brackett. Her life, especially at the end, when she was writing the sequel to the first Star Wars, is inspiring and heartbreaking and big. It’s such an external story that I felt like I needed something internal, something that’s the opposite of heartbreaking, to balance it out. And people always ask me how I became a writer. I can pinpoint the impulse back to second grade, when I had a really lousy teacher and I would get bored and make trouble in class. My mom gave me a notebook and told me to write stories when I was bored. So that’s where all this writing started.
I thought I could bring my whole career full circle by fictionalizing that school year and writing the story with my mom in mind. She was the entire imagined audience I had for that story. I wrote it just to make her laugh. I hope she does when she gets to the end of the collection.