Whatever That Thing Is For You and Yours

ALLAN GURGANUS, born in North Carolina in 1947, is the author of novels, novellas, and collections of stories, including Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, White People, Plays Well with Others and, his most recent novel, Local Souls, which was published in September by Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton. He has taught at Stanford, Duke, Sarah Lawrence, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His accolades include The National Magazine Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a PEN/Faulkner nomination, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, for adaptations of his fiction, four Emmy Awards. Local Souls was named by The New York Times as one of 2013’s 100 Notable Books.

The following conversation took place on the fourth floor of a hotel in Iowa City, Iowa, at the height of tornado season.


JOE FASSLER: Tell me about Falls, the fictional North Carolina town where much of your fiction is set, including the three novellas in Local Souls. Are there parallels between the fictional Falls and Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where you grew up?

ALLAN GURGANUS: Rocky Mount, in 1955, had 24,000 people, 60% black. The white folks sort of all almost knew each other by name, on sight, and recognized those black people that worked for them or neighbors. Tobacco provided our major mojo, but even tobacconists like my grandfather warned young kinsmen that the stuff would kill you dead by 40. The moral contradictions could hardly be richer.

By starting on the surface with a real town, you get to add everything you’ve learned from Margaret Mead about Samoan communities. Available is everything you’ve ever fantasized regarding riches and sex and crime. It is like grafting exotic species onto some durable taproot guaranteed to sustain all whimsical additions.

By now, the invented Falls has tattooed its street map inside my head. I know the names of all its streets, what class lives nearest which. To find a new story, I can simply walk to an unexplored home on a familiar (because imagined) street. I can knock at the door and see which narrative spook, sunk into what brand of trouble, answers that particular door.

I named the broadest costliest white residential street Summit Avenue. I got that from Iowa City, which stole it from St. Paul, I guess. It’s the perfect pinnacle name. You know, she’s a “Summit Girl.” The black part of Falls is called Baby Africa, and that sector’s main drag is Star Street. And all of it matters.

Some details of my own town I changed to protect myself from lawsuits. I thought of moving the berg wholesale across the border into Virginia. But didn’t want to give that state too much credit.

How has Falls changed since you first depicted its Civil War era? What has writing contemporary stories taught you about the peculiarities of being human now? And has the character of your locals souls changed since Lincoln’s time? Since you began writing? Or does their fundamental character stay the same? 

Local Souls, the title, combines a singularly earthbound term and a most transparent and spiritual noun. Both pertain at once. We all have to live someplace! In this work I wanted to fix on Those That Stayed. Not the bright kids who rushed, like me, to college up North. But the guy who inherited a Budweiser distributorship just profitable enough to hold him in Falls, North Carolina. When I returned to the state after miraculously surviving the HIV years in New York City, I was amazed to find how smart and informed and alive my old friends had remained. They had all worked out their fantasies through hobbies and their kids and their gardens and their not-so-secret affairs. I think the reality of Madame Bovary still pertains. There is a restlessness that comes over us at a certain age, and it can only be answered by Action. Come what may.

In the new book I try to give credence to the keepers of the great houses, those professionals who’ve sacrificed more than they can admit by staying put. I respect their struggle and try to honor it. In some ways nothing ever changes in a little town. What charms us about such a place — close observation and communal empathy — can turn hard on us when we err, when we break the ethical and social code.

My major characters all have Volvo station wagons and live within four blocks of each other. It sounds so pat and is anything but. Technology is there. Local struggles now involve the internet and secrets are harder to keep as information is available at any home at any hour. I invented obsessive relations and secrets that became moving and gigantic for me. Those That Stayed have often led operatic lives that excited and surprised me. I began by feeling I was sponsoring them; but then by the end, they adopted and instructed me.

JF: Why do you tend to work primarily with one locale? Is there a value in getting to know one (fictional) setting very deeply?

AG: Writing is an act of geologic exploration. “Place” starts at the earth’s center. The sunny surface? Just an orange peel. Then you get to go down, down. You’ll soon know where all the Indian settlements were, at which river bends and, thanks to battle strategy and fishing, why. In this imaginary landscape everything piles up in sandwich layers, enriching from book to book.

I didn’t know much when I started. I began as a baby, sunk in mere autobiography, crucified or papoosed on the letter “I”. Then you arrive at “her,” next “him,” toward “them,” till finally you hit that true pay dirt called “us.” That’s when it all starts to pertain. When Baby Africa and Summit get contiguous, a circle. I have not yet struck China, but I am at least down far enough to have found amazing Tuscarora pottery shards.

By telling the story of one town from beginning to end, you become its pedant, Homer, hitching post. A kind of richness comes from simply creating successive mayors, charting the administrations of one particular church. Think how the Lincoln presidency, generally considered the greatest in our national life, was followed by weak, bad-to-drink ex-tailor Andrew Johnson’s. Fictionally, you could not do better. Benefitting from the friction between contrasting ethical visions. Friction plus texture = fiction.

The longer you study any human settlement, the more purely does its spirit residue rise up clear to you. By making yourself scribe to all six thousand citizen-lives, you bypass the essential loneliness of starting over with each new piece of white paper. No story is not related to the last one you saved. Soon lives intersect naturally as streets do.

Tolstoy says, “Once you’ve loved, completely loved, one woman, a thousand women are yours — you will know them all.” For me, attending a single patch of earth, imagining what’s happened on it, means opening endless epic invention. I love applying epochal standards to the loyal few who stayed home to mind the store. Some people write only wanderers. Their creations are nomads meeting a succession of strangers ever more colorful. In order to stay put, fiction must work harder; but the rewards seem greater. I sometimes wonder who the Great Gatsby might have become if he had stayed that handsome poor-boy Jay Gatz, if he had never rowed out to the yacht that whisked him off to the War, the East, and criminality.

In the prologue to Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All, you write that history is your starting point. What did you mean by that?

Just as all NBA basketball courts must have the same dimensions — if a uniform difficulty (fair scoring) is to be maintained — history offers a guaranteed framing measurement we all count on. What we name Fiction is in fact subcontracted Dream emerging from the mother-dream called History. It’s one great sow, with all our piglet wishes pulling off her dairy bar. We’re here beneath her, drawing daily from this great, succulent feeding.

History gives us all three or four basic facts we then have our way with. Because photography in the 1860’s required subjects to stand still in order to “register”, we only have images of static personnel and one glimpse of battle smoke. We often find dead soldiers shown once their shooting’s stopped for good, but there is not one motion picture, no actual fighting.

That’s allowed our imaginations greater license and, with that, accountability, commitment. The very limitations of technology provide opportunities for us, still trying to imagine what it felt like, what-all it meant. I always surround myself with periodicals from whatever age I’m trying to chart and posit. Books benefit from time’s refinements. Books take at least a year to publish. That privileges one point of view; it filters out misinformation. But weekly magazines? Those will show you what ladies wore for these seven days. They will tell you how cheap heroin could be yours for in the nineteenth century’s back pages full of cures for aching feet or worse.

Actors try, in long runs of plays, to jump on cue, as if alarmed by the gunshot they know damn well is coming. They must fight to look shocked at being betrayed, as if for the first time, months in a row. There is something wonderfully child-like, militantly so, about a man my age pretending to be other people of every possible sex in history’s farthest reaches. My father once told me he considered the job fairly undignified. And, boy, was he right! But, for me, the very shilly-shally artifice helps keep it fun, and more.

I think much contemporary writing feels desolate and sterile precisely for withholding characters’ own entitled sense of history. Carver’s people are always losing a lease on a place they never liked in the first place. Their history? Left in the crawlspace four apartments back. Yes, ours is a depressed moment; yes, there we live with economic chaos; true, 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center. But is all this in any way new? The economy seems tidally changeable. Religions thrive on killing others whose religious views differ and therefore threaten. The texts promoting forgiveness are defended via enemy blood. Nothing new here. What’s new is a single person’s hearing while in the crumbling tower’s stairwell. One point of view. One set of sentences lived into sufficiently, until it sensually then ethically implicates the complicated reader.

There have always been cyclones here in Iowa, just as there was one here last night. That’s a kind of consolation. Admitting that reminds you of your own mortality: history again comes available to you. We left our dinner table and hid in a basement for ten minutes, then returned, far readier for red wine. The subject is forever mortality versus continuity. Manners versus law. Love up against death and always losing, always winning.

Your characters are forever telling stories — the narrators are self-conscious storytellers, and they tell stories within stories. It seems to me that one of your major projects is exploring stories — how they’re told, why we tell them, how they calcify or become fluid with time. Is story, itself, your subject?

Stories remain our revenges on time. The best actually trap samples of it. They’re a form of boasting and a kind of penance. An admission of guilt and a petition to the future, our wish to be remembered, counted as a survivor even while assuredly a casualty as well.

In the end, a narrator is changed by the information her own story imputes. The teller is dignified and enlarged by the sheer transaction of offering Story to some assumed future listener.

It’s like writing about sex: two people with different goals come together. And only in conjunction do they achieve a kind of ecstasy that leaves them both feeling more inclusive, briefly more available to humanity and the commonweal.

My teacher John Cheever used to say that writing is a force of memory imperfectly understood.

I think of you almost like a literary method actor — you have the ability to inhabit a voice so completely. How do you approach a highly idiosyncratic first-person narrator like Lucy Marsden, the narrator of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All? How do you know when you’re acting well?

I love looking up very basic terms we all use. And of course “voice” and “vote” stem from the same root. By creating a voice, you’re casting a vote. “Vocation” is another variant. So we get speech, opinion, and work at once. Central concept.

Lucy was a kind of gift from the cosmos. I read the phrase in The New York Times: “oldest living confederate widow.” And I just thought — ding! light bulb over head. I’d been looking for a way to tell the story of the American Civil War, of the slave-owners’ South, of subsequent racial politics in this country — all the things that interest me most. And suddenly that phrase liberated me into thinking: what a perspective. Point of view, again. Point is a pencil’s sharpened tip, view is global. But the pivot, once in place, can give you a cosmic first-base. If you keep one foot there, you can never be tagged out.

I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby just mentioned. Of course, the single greatest choice in that book is Fitzgerald’s decision to let Nick Caraway be its translator, teller, and character witness. Not Gatsby, not Daisy, not Tom, not Myrtle. Instead he picked a person with very conventional middle-class ethos, some kid thrust into a world far beyond his means. By remaining polite and semi-handsome and clean, Nick is kept around by others. They own the giant houses in a zone where he rents a beach-shack. Why is Nick in every scene? Because people that rich need witnesses and gofers.

My Rebel widow’s position vis-à-vis the war was like that. She was born a supernumerary. Lucy, like Prufrock, swelled the scene with little further function. Witnesses are never quite consulted — they’re just expected to sign the bottom of a document and vouch for having been in the room. Meanwhile, Lucy’s building this great head of steam, an invoice of crimes overlooked. She’s spent 99 years overhearing before being asked to speak.

Finally, thanks to a young person with the tape recorder and a school assignment, the Widow is asked to unreel it all. At 99, she still has the smarts and the energy and the wish to get it all on record. Her telling is a way of resurrecting her own beloved dead — all her children have perished of simple old age. She says stories come like grapes, they grow in clusters. Opening her up, I felt I had unleashed an oracle. It sounds like something you say in interviews, but it’s really true. There is almost a ham radio signal that starts sending you dictation. Your role is like the Carpathia, receiving Morse code saying the Titanic is going down. You can either believe it and come help, or not. You just write as fast as you can and listen with wired accuracy. Then, if you are true to that voice, it will do all the designing for you; all the architecture is inherent in its music.

Looking back over five books, I want my characters’ voices to be as different as possible. I want to write educated people and illiterate ones and to test them against each other. This is one of the benefits of having studied with Grace Paley, a literary genius who believed profoundly in working people’s capacity to tell their own urgent stories in their homemade way. Sometimes our chance of eloquence is improved by dodging a university education.

More and more, as I see academia at work, I think university training can impede individual articulation and clarity. Educators roll their eyes at freshmen unable to get out a sentence without “like” in it, like, three times. But every year the Ivy League chooses some seminal word. Seminal actually is a former winner. Word goes out: the key useful mandatory term. Recent crown-holders are transgressive and performative. Then every paper in every journal you pick up is a-bristle with this one term cunningly applied. It is slavishly fashionable as a dictated skirt-length. Then a signal goes out again. And if you apply this term after its best-if-used-before date, you are utterly out. Lost. Those institutions charged with renewing ideas are too often fashion-capitals.

In such spots, passion-emotion seems suspect because the sources prove so hard to footnote. Where are the precedents for complex emotions? They are meant to be eternal mysteries with no code word shortcuts. Words describing these must be re-earned, re-formed every time.

You write primarily in the first person, but your narrators are often atypical and highly versatile. Lucy Marsden, for instance, drifts chronically into other people’s voices — her husband’s, and so on. Are we to understand that she’s truly mediating those people, or are the non-Lucy “I”s always a projection of Lucy somehow?

I ask because your short story “Reassurance” specifically asks readers to consider a shape-shifting first-person narrative: what’s initially presented as a young soldier’s voice is revealed to be the voice of his mourning mother, channeling her son’s spirit in a swan song of grief. Who’s speaking?

I wrote “Reassurance” quite literally the day I stopped working on Widow. I had delivered the huge novel manuscript, a final draft after seven years at it. This was the first morning all that work was lost to me, no further corrections. I had a strange image, of a great fuel tank nearly emptied — nothing left in it, just an echoing kind of void. So I gave myself an assignment, having read the original Walt Whitman letter. He had written the mother of a now-dead boy Federal private Walt had helped to nurse. I’d said to a friend: what we need now is the voice of that dead soldier. That was my assignment the next morning, since I wanted to keep working.

As I wrote, it dawned on me the voice was not the soldier’s at all. It became the consolation a survivor offers herself by imitating her missing beloved. Now I see this short tale as a kind of swan song — I hadn’t thought of it until this second — to the missing novel itself. It’s also an admission that everything happening in Widow was completely subjective, and in a way self-serving. Happily the self that’s being served, Lucy’s, is immense and extraordinary and generous. I think there’s no pure imitation — parrots can pick up random collaged bits and pieces. But the Widow’s gift for mimicry benefits from her having been left out of so many earlier conversations. You have lots of time, sitting in the corner, silently observing other people’s quirks if you’ve gone un-consulted, never quite seen yourself.

It’s essential that we know how other people talk, and that we understand each other’s gestures. I’m always impressed with friends who can say, “Have you noticed how her left hand is always in her purse, or her pocket?” It thrills me — means that one person is paying fierce attention to another. This business of assuming the voice of others is very holy, very powerful. A huge joy and responsibility. A duty.

When I last heard you read from your novel, in 2011 at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you read a long section narrated by a third-person plural voice — we —the voice of Falls’ inhabitants. It reminded me of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” which seems to be told by the gossipy voices of the town. Are you trying to channel a collective voice for your novel?

I’m working to figure out how one writes a third-person narrative that has some of the warmth and colloquial charm of the first-person voice but also enjoys privy information only a semi-omniscient narrator could access. I’m not sure I’ve completely succeeded, but I’ve reached a point where I don’t want to form just another choir of separate first-person voices. I think of those Faulkner novels with separate chapters of separate witnesses who all sound just alike…like Faulkner, coincidentally. I want an overview because I need to know whatever it is I know. In totality, aside from subjective filters, the seats with “partial view” as box offices call those.

Yeah, that’s the wish. I want the reader to trust a common “we.” There’s a danger. The reader keeps waiting for the general “we” to become some single one. Aunt Suzy. Who’s telling this?

The way you get around that? Presented information has to be incredibly interesting. And the colloquialisms cannot be quite so intense as they are in a strong single narrator’s voice. The Widow Lucy’s, for instance. Tone has to be even-handed. It must be a fair narration and not take sides. I don’t know any other way to tell this particular book. I can already write the reviews of this novel I’m working on, saying, “Who is this ‘we’?” Mark Twain, when he heard Walt Whitman speak as “we”, asked if Whitman meant the author and his tapeworm!

Your story “Blessed Assurance” is taught in a business ethics class at Harvard Business School. What does it mean to be an ethical writer? What responsibility do writers have as moral thinkers? And how does writing itself, in some ways, form the basis of your own ethics?

“What would I have done in the same situation?” is a question that the writer wants every reader asking on page one. Another great query in fiction runs, “Am I responsible to anyone apart from myself? Is there anything past my wishes and pleasure that demands my attention? Do my responsibilities cease with my own parents and spouse and children? How big, finally, is my community?”

One of the things I’ve tried to convince my students to do is ask themselves, in undertaking a story: what’s truly at stake? If the question is the hemline for this year’s skirts, then you probably might well rethink your story. It should all be life and death. It should be a fight to the end. It doesn’t cost any more to write about those subjects than to deal with minor feelings and social nuance.

You’ve been working on your current novel-in-progress since at least 1994. What is it like sticking with a work over the long haul? How do you conjure the patience and fortitude to stick with it a long-term?

Just walking around you have many ideas, you hear titles, you eavesdrop by accident or not on others’ conversations, you get germs of stories from the daily news and your Republican neighbors’ noisy bulldog. But there are, in a lifetime, five or six ideas that seem one’s truest cornucopias — each has all these other little stories packed within them. For me, one overarching saga remains the American Civil War — trying to tell that familiar drama from a unique enough perspective. Another follows tracing the concept of a single Church across a century or so.

I’m not conventionally religious — agnostic on my best least-grouchy days. I had far too much childhood churching to let my faith survive. Candle-snuffing natural spirit. I attended a highly segregated Presbyterian church that reassured itself via Scripture why blacks would not feel welcome here. We made sure of that. “Paging Christ, please?”

And yet there’s something about the communal redemption a church offers I find extremely powerful. I am moved by the bald spiritual hunger that people bring with them through the door of any small church. The appetite for clarity and meaning comes cathedral-sized and bigger. The topic makes for incredible opportunities fictionally. Add sex into the mix and you’ve got God and Pussy and Dick. Now, Joe, my friend, that’s one high-octane brew, Mister Man.

There’s something about the power that parishioners give to one preacher after another. Asking the leader to form them, to guide them, to strip them of their collection money, choose from among their prettiest children. That blind faith makes for incredible numbers of themes and variations. I haven’t really resolved all the book’s structural decisions. But I’ve made the histories of ten or twelve of these preachers over a period of a century. They’re very real to me. Three or four families that continue through the generations become living repetitions of certain tribal faults and merits. I have almost a blind faith in the work. Nothing has superseded it.

I was working on this before beginning Widow in the seventies. When I was a very young writer, I wrote one of the characters, my favorite of the preachers. Young Dacey Pilker. He is a faith healer possessed of a power to help others, but not himself.

I feel we don’t choose certain big themes. One is born to certain of them. History and family and temperament all direct you, and so does your education. Having been required as a child to go to church constantly shaped me, against my feral pagan will. My father was born-again Baptist, my mother a Presbyterian, and the souls of their four children seemed their pawns on one chessboard being played over and over again. Who must go to which church for which service on what Sunday? Completely different churches in different social classes, and each of them busy condemning the others — no honor among thieves. Now I’m certainly no church-goer. I absorbed so much of the pettiness, the unforgiveable and anti-imaginative racism. The Church NEEDS a church. But all that clearly fascinated me. I continue to plunder it.

In the book’s title — The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church — I see an intersection between profound religious experience and sexual experience. Is this something that interests you?

Me and you and all us tail-hounds. That’s the crucial cross, as it were. The pivot. Spiritual longing and erotic hunger both sort of start in the solar plexus — one goes up, and the other fires downward. But you never know which direction a certain spirit jolt is going to veer.

I’ve arranged the book in such a way that the land on which the church is built has been effectively stolen from a black slave. A haint lady, an ancient, she puts a curse on the new church building. The church rests directly beside a lithium spring, and she curses the church by saying: every time you hear the waters you will think only of sex and not of God. Of course, most of us do anyway!

Gosh, the difficulty of concentrating on pure spirit when we’re all flesh twenty-four–seven. It makes for some interesting complications between preachers and children, and preachers and others’ wives and husbands, individuals who want to remain chaste and pure but find that increasingly difficult. I find that pivot very rich and merry-making in its wildness and its comic possibilities.

Maybe you could talk a little bit about your daily routine and the way you approach it.

People want to give you credit for facing the desk daily, but it’s an obsession. I could be worse off: I might be washing my hands 150 times a day. All I want to do is make sentences. I’m not hurting anybody. My Buddhist friends refer to theirs as a religious practice. Practice, practice, practice leads to Carnegie Hall and paradise.

I just turned in a manuscript of three very different novellas, the forthcoming Falls trilogy [Local Souls], out in September 2013. That means that my alarm clock has been steadily set for four-thirty AM. And I’m almost 65 years old. Getting up, living on three hours sleep, it’s not that good for you. But sometimes it’s very good for the work. Sleep-deprivation is a precondition of parenthood. Amazing what one can do in successive four-thirty AMs. I think the writer makes clearer impartial spatial decisions in the early hours; your unconscious nearer the surface.

I usually rise around six. I try to work only six days a week, try using the Sunday New York Times as an excuse to sabotage my morning. I usually work until about two or three in the afternoon. And it’s not all first draft work, obviously, it’s mostly revision. All we do is rework an idea that makes sentences that were pretty good the first time. The goal is to eliminate the ones that are only good and too sequential, not surprising, not breathed. I have a garden, and I go out and weed between paragraphs — anything that doesn’t involve spoken language. I try not to talk to anybody before two — on the phone or any other way. After that, conversations about groceries or banking become extremely interesting. But you have to save the day’s best and first energy for the work.

I know many former students who get up two hours before their children do and put in two pure hours. That’s all it really takes. It’s a luxury to have all day to think about the work, to have that batting around that long, but it’s not essential. Just keep it going and it will take care of the rest. When you fall asleep, you need not worry, “I hope I can dream tonight.” You just do. And, with the schedule giving orders, writing simply happens, too. It wants to because of and despite you. It wants to know what will happen in it next.

One such story is “My Heart is a Snake Farm,” published in The New Yorker, about a lifelong virgin who runs a motel by herself and develops an infatuation with the polygamous snake handler across the road. Where did the idea for this story come from?

The story came about from a group of photographs. There’s a wonderful photographer called Burk Uzzle. His work often centers on roadside attractions. He’s a fellow North Carolinian who read my work, said he’d like me to write about his own. He brought me 100 photographs, black and white, beautiful photographs. There’s something about the reality of longing along highways — especially once you cross the Florida line. There is come-on signage, Venus flytraps laid out to snag unwary tourists. The forlorn images of man-made altars and ads spoke to me.

I imagined a motel occupied by a single person. US 301 had been bypassed, leaving behind its archeology of tourist whimsy. And of course I remembered my own childhood holidays: my parents would drive to Florida and sometimes take us to the Ross Allen Reptile Show. He was a second-tier animal entertainer of the period. He would keep a pit writhing full of rattlesnakes. He’d tie balloons to his treated boots. He would wander in among the things and snakes would strike at him and break every balloon. Grown men squealed like little girls! It happened every day, five shows daily.

I also remain very interested in the concept of virginity, having happily gotten rid of that heavy load very early in my own life. It’s not that I regret giving it up [laughs]. Some folks think it is a sort of death in life, never genitally unpacking between existences.

But look where it got Emily Dickinson, look at Flannery O’Connor, consider Jane Austen — and you have to marvel. What an incredible list of geniuses who kept their maidenheads, who understood certain tidal psychic ferocities that many of us, who do get laid on an irregular basis, never really understand.

The centerpiece of “My Heart is a Snake Farm” is a long, climactic sex scene. How do you approach writing about sex?

When I was just teaching at Iowa, I felt like some red-light madam from New Orleans coaxing farm kids indoors. Begging my students for a good serious fuck on the page! Just one? They wrote like virgins too often, and not the ferocious kind. I am really surprised that for younger writers, writing about sex stops just where old movies had to. You can’t show a husband and wife in one bed — there must be two single beds. Can’t be visibly pregnant, never shown on the horizontal. You might believe this a strategy of Roman Catholic censorship circa 1932, but should it still have a grip on atheistical young horndog writers in the twenty-first century?

We see the Boy Meet Girl and one little smooch. Then the lights go out and next, ten in the morning, the birds are singing and there are slippers beside the bed. A lot goes on in that interval, brothers and sisters. And it’s fun as hell to write about. How people eat and what they eat, what they wear and how they keep their clothes, the way they design their living quarters, how they drive their cars, and how they conduct one certain famous sex act — this is our bread and butter as narrative artists, Nuns of America!

I think one reason people now seem afraid to write about sex, they’re afraid to write about good sex. There is so much porn on the web and in the air, young writers bypass sex for fear they will make byproduct porn by accident. But you need not have gym bodies in your stories. All sex is not all good (I hate to be the one to break it to you, Joe). And yet, for fiction’s sake, all sex is good. People talk about not being willing to risk bad sex on the page or between the sheets. I want to say, “Yeah, I know you have high standards. But it’s Saturday night and I’ll just go ahead and take my chances.” The right answer to most questions is usually Yes, All the Above.

All artists have to be whores, really. They really have to just get down, get on that thing, and work it — whatever that thing is for you and yours. [Laughs] I really encourage writers, when they’re writing about two people — or three, or six — entering erotic circumstances, to refrain from pulling back into the frozen Presbyterian safety of good taste. Good taste is our enemy. Good taste is what our middle-class upbringings have done to us. It makes us and everything be beige. It holds us back from some unbelievably essential material. We have a responsibility to our characters to allow them a sexual life such as we have. Or have had. Just because we’re living in a puritanical, sex-hating country doesn’t mean we should hold ourselves to its bogus standard. Subvert, subvert.

How you balance sustained work on your novel with attention to shorter pieces?

I like to break the day in half. There’s a lot to be said for devoting mornings to the project that’s most important to you. Afternoons get a chance at another form. You usually burn out in three or four hours. You lose your purchase on any piece. Then you run the danger of undoing what you spent your morning concocting. By shifting to another perspective or voice, you can sometimes bring a freshness to the work. A 20 minute nap between sessions is highly recommended. Palate-cleansing.

You’ve said: “I have too much respect for books to publish things that I don’t believe in absolutely, things not built for eternity.” How do you know when something’s ship-shape?

You feel it before you know it. Reading the work aloud a lot is so important. That helps prove its final-finish, helps guarantee its music. Also, test it out on other people. I have a posse of dear and respected friends, some of whom I studied with here at Iowa. They have been reading me constantly since that time, and I them. You must run every variation. You don’t want to be known for one thing only, though that direction is most profitable. I have seen some talented members of my generation rewrite the same book 12 times. I would not trade places with them. Some now have subcontracted the actual work after one inspiring lunch with their own expensive ghost. No kind of life, I tell you. And no names, please. Our vision of the world is always changing but the focus of our interest should also shift consciously. Otherwise we risk writing a series of books like that mystery writer who is working through the alphabet, starting titles with each letter and the same damn heroine. Zzzzzz.

There’s a wonderful biographer, Robert Richardson. He’s written brilliantly about Emerson, Thoreau, and William James. His book on James was published a year or two ago called William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Beautiful work. I asked this biographer, how he told such a complex life in so little space? And he said, “My secret was I found three examples for every point worth making. And then at the last possible moment, just before the book went into production, I chose the best of every triad. That’s how I compacted it. At great cost, but worthwhile. A favor to the reader finally.” He shaved a third off the book, but that entire surplus remains implicit in the text, in its knowingness, authority.

It’s not unlike a potter looking at a shape that he’s just thrown on the wheel. There’s a bump or some imperfection, a vessel’s foot that doesn’t meet the table. If you’ve made these shapes many, many times, your practiced hands know what’s essential and what’s not. A very organic process. I think wasps building a gigantic nest in some tree don’t make “architectural” decisions. The very act of emitting the papery goo that hardens into becoming the nest itself contains the design. Our patterns are inherent. We are all looking for that pared down form in our own chemistry, history. But it pre-exist us. We can trust an inevitable kind of granular making; one thing’s leading to another and the next. It is a kind of trusting detective work — one clue, containing a hint of what must open next. And that’s how a complete world is created. We are God thinking things up favorite sensations in Genesis. Say there is light. Now what? What a thrilling task.

On any school career day, to answer “Writer” as your plan, that takes a certain kind of madness. The will to do it is your automatic driver’s license. And the act, honestly pursued, always leads to your needing to continue the act. One of its many requirements is: You must agree to be alone most of every working day. That seems a sacrifice to some. But not to those of us who see that as the truest sort of freedom.

Because I’m traveling, I haven’t been truly alone for eight days. And, God, I need it. Oh, I need that. When I walk into my very own old house, I’m not looking to call “Lucy, I’m home!” I carry it with me. But the place’s temple silence, and the option to create and fill that void, gives the greatest possible erotic and spiritual invitation. That constitutes the wedding vow for me. My first love is still with me.


Joe Fassler is a writer for The Atlantic, where he covers literary topics and runs the “By Heart” series.