Butler University mentor Michael Dahlie who’s debut novel A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living won a PEN/ Hemingway Award is unremarkable in one important way—his second effort The Best of Youth (WW Norton) joins the ranks of worthy and useful novels that are substantially ignored by the various gatekeepers of literature (except for wide- of-the-mark scribbling in Boston’s New York Times subsidiary.
How I came to choose this book, read and enjoy it, is of course, the wonderful serendipity that attends my ceaseless sifting through seemingly endless pyramids of books. Having enjoyed Dahlie’s novel I was pleased to converse with him on all manner of subjects, including video series such as Girls and Deadwood. Ian McShane, Brooklyn,having a happy family, Indianapolis, Charles Newman,University of Wisconsin (at Madison), popular historians,Dahlie’s new novel, hypochondria and what not.
Micheal Dahlie by Robert Birnbaum
RB:Why should I believe that profile that’s on your webpage —the story of your marriage proposal? And how your child was conceived at a Van Halen concert
MD:To what are you referring?
RB:The proposal in Brooklyn walking down the street?
MD:Oh well, there’s no reason not to believe the proposal. As for–
RB:What about just being skeptical about the conception?
MD:You’re really skeptical? Well, have you been to a Van Halen concert recently?
RB:I’ve never been to a Van Halen concert at all.
MD:Ever? I can’t answer this properly. This is something that’s going to get me into trouble.
RB:I don’t want to put you in that position, I’m very sorry. But I do know that you were, in fact, married in Martha’s Vineyard.
MD:Yes, I was.
RB:And the news of your marriage was actually carried in a wedding notice in the New York Times.
RB:That doesn’t seem like you.
MD:That doesn’t seem like me? Well, why doesn’t it seem like me?
RB:Well, I think that given the sort of modesty that is on display in the novel, which I can’t help but think reflects something about you, it doesn’t seem like a gesture that you would make, especially if you made up odd ball stuff about the marriage.
MD:Right. Well, the deal was is that I was–I guess I got married when I was–36? No, 38? I don’t remember how old I was–but my wife and I did not want to have a proper wedding we felt–we in fact are too shy to sort of stand up in front of a bunch of people and emote, and–so we just picked a place that would be easy for all of our family to get to. I had never been to Martha’s Vineyard. My wife had once or twice, but–I mean, I’ve been to the cape a bunch, and just to kind of–you know, every year or so, we’d rent a place for a week or–
RB:What’s your recollection of that day? Was it a pleasant day?
MD:It was a great day. It was very small. It was just my family, and it was in Menemsha Bay, and again, I don’t know the Vineyard that well, but it was a kind of secluded area.
RB:What time of year was it?
MD:It was summer. July. And I–
RB:I always had a picture of the island being overrun in the summer.
MD:You know, it was after we went to Edgartown for a couple nights–my wife and I (before) we were married, and that was very busy–but Menemsha it was–there’s just a lot of kind of marshland on that end, and there’s also really strict zoning.
RB:Must be for the people with horses.
MD:Well, you’re not allowed to buy liquor in that part of the Vineyard too, and you know, you want to keep the Boston people away from the place. That’s how to do it.
RB:Well, they’ll just [brown bag it] bring their own.
MD:And that’s what people do. You go to one of the places, and you bring your own. But still, there’s no honkey-tonk bar scene, and if you want a lobster roll, you’ve got to bring your own wine and go down to the one kind of a shack that the–
RB:It’s nice your recollection of the day was pleasant and happy. I think that, frequently, weddings are sort of strange.
MD:I remember we were there with this guy, James Pringle, who was a Justice of the Peace in Martha’s Vineyard, and he was just this quintessential Yankee sort of secular, sort of the authority in the area, and he was really nice. And I remember walking around with my mom and my in-laws and saying, “Well, where should we do this? Where should we do this?” We finally found a little spot on the lawn, and my sister-in-law, I think, gave a quick reading, and we said our vows, and soon, we were up on the patio–
RB:Who wrote the wedding announcement for the New York Times? Did you write that, or did they have someone–?
MD:It’s an interesting story because–basically–well, my wife wrote something, but they’ve got a staff–
RB: She’s written a novel, hasn’t she?
MD:Well, she wrote a novel, right. But they have a staff at the New York Times that is pretty–they not only seem to be pretty extensive but they’re pretty cutthroat. I remember getting fact-checked by this guy, and, you know, at this point–
MD:Yeah, and at this point, I had a book contract with Norton for my first book, and they wouldn’t put that in the announcement. The guy, for some reason, thought that unless the book was out— I was like– –
RB:Well, did you get back to them later, you know, when it won the PEN?
MD:Right. Actually, I was so frightened by this fact-checker, he was so aggressive with me, and I think I’m just going to let this one slide.
RB:Well, that’s more modesty! Look,that sort of plays into the overarching feeling I got from your book, which was that the character Henry has this really wonderful empathy and sympathy for elder people, which I find to be, in my own experience, unusual. Where does that come from?
MD:Well, I don’t know. I think Henry — I think he likely would have more empathy for people his own age as well if he understood them all or got along with them at all, but he’s so baffled by his own social world that it—I actually have spent a lot of time in Williamsburg and Brooklyn, the place that this set, but only because of my younger sister —I saw it as an outsider, and it was a weird time. She moved there when she was 22, right out of college, and I had, as was often the case with me when I was a freelance writer, I’d go from eating peanut butter for months and not getting any paycheck at all to getting a big one, which, if you lay it out over the months¬, it’s a reasonable wage, but if you get this gigantic check and you’ve got nothing, you’re like “Oh, my God, I’m rich!” So I just leased an apartment in Paris, and I was living there, and my apartment in Brooklyn was really, really cheap, so I could keep that. But my dad died, so I came back, and my sister decided that she was going to go work on some organic farm–you know, some kind of post-college adventure–but she moved to the city instead, so the family was kind of all close–
RB:What farm was there in Brooklyn?
MD:What? I think it was Idaho is where she was–
RB:How old is she?
MD:Well, now, she’s 30.
RB:And how old was she then?
MD:She was 22. And I was 34.
RB:Would she be of the generation that loves the series Girls? Would she be portrayed in that series?
MD:She must be because she lives in Greenpoint. But I don’t know. I never asked her about that. And I don’t know if she watches that. She’s actually a television producer, so she’s up on a lot of kind of the shows, but that’s never come up.
The Best of Youth by Michael Dahlie
RB:Have you watched Girls?
MD:I’ve never watched it. Actually, I feel like I should because it, of course, has a similar setting to The Best of Youth, but I don’t watch anything unless it’s on Netflix, and I don’t think it’s out in that form yet.
RB:No, HBO doesn’t do that. Sometimes, I watch two or three at a time. I brought it up because I only recently–I was aware of the noise [or buzz if you are simpatico] out there about Girls and Lena Dunham–but I read something in New York Magazine that had something to do with Elizabeth Wurtzel She wrote Prozac Nation. Do you remember her?
MD:Oh, yeah, well, of course, I remember the book, yeah.
RB:And it was a take down of her, in which she identified with the girls, you know, in “Girls.” So I started watching it, and I was–it’s compelling as hell. But it’s also currently some kind of–given to self-consciousness with kids–it’s some kind of big thing, you know, matter of controversy. I ask young girls, and they go, “Ooh!”
RB:They’re like, “I don’t believe that Leah Dunham wrote all that stuff!” Or something like that.
MD:Yeah, I don’t know, I know so little about it that it’s hard for me to even kind of come up with a comment, and again, this is–this is bad–but I have been thinking this, in order for me to get HBO it would involve so many difficult mental challenges, I don’t have any idea how I would–
RB:There are all these narratives flying around beyond the literary world that are actually thoughtful and compelling, and, you know, I actually traded off not using Facebook anymore for starting to watch certain videos, you know, Justified, which is a series based on an Elmore Leonard character and a new one called The Following with Kevin Bacon, about a serial murder cult. I was a great devotee and still am of The Wire.
RB:There are all these wonderful stories that are available, and part of the reason is based on places like HBO giving writers an opportunity to really write original stuff.
MD:Right. Well, I–usually the way it happens for me is that I’m several years behind because that is–you know, once these networks have kind of exhausted their revenue streams from cable etc., it comes out on Netflix, so I watch these things like you do. I must have watched The Wire in–you know, the whole thing in like–a couple months. I don’t understand how people don’t do it that way. I think it would really make me want to blow my brains out to have to wait a week between each–I don’t–it just would seem so debilitating–
RB:I wonder if it just speaks to a different sense of time for, you know, sort of contemporary attentions.
MD:Yeah. You know what–one of the things that I think is really interesting too because my sister, like I said. she’s up on a lot this stuff and she has all the technology, so she’s got this kind of nice DVR machine, and for her, a lot of these shows are also very social.
MD:Meaning Downton Abbey is no fun unless she’s got five friends over, and she’s made something special to eat. And for me, I’m also–I like being in the dark, watching it on my computer, not being annoyed by anyone else. And I also–I probably suffer, quite a bit from that constant distraction, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of these things without stopping every ten to fifteen minutes, even when I’m loving it. In fact, I often stop at the most tense moments because I can’t quite–
RB:Well, the choice is yours.
RB:You’re supposed to, like, every eleven minutes, there’s a commercial.
MD:Right, right, right.
RB:My son and I have been watching all five seasons of [76 episodes] Friday Night Lights.
MD:My sister actually loves that. Have you done Deadwood yet?
RB:I have an unexamined prejudice against Deadwood because of David Milch. This may not even be true—I’m friendly with Pete Dexter, who wrote a novel called Deadwood years ago.
RB:He’s totally vexed by David Milch’s’s claim in the New Yorker that he had actually never read Dexter’s book, which seems to be very, very close to the way the story unfolds in the series. But it was brilliant nonetheless. You know, Ian McShane and John Hawkes and Tim Oliphant. They are great character actors.
MD:I thought that they were great. I think¬–and I really have done so many of these shows–but I really think that’s the best one, mostly because–I mean, I hate to–I don’t want Pete Dexter to write me some kind of nasty email, but– however authentic people claim things are, all fiction is like an act of illusion and smoke and mirrors. And it may be that every single article of clothing and the filth of the streets and everything else may be totally authentic, but what’s such a lie–the fundamental lie of that show–is that you have a town full of basically illiterate people speaking such beautiful, beautiful language.
RB:Except for Ian McShane.
MD:Well, right, except for Ian McShane, but–have you ever seen Love Joy? This was a long, long-running British hour-long drama that starred him, and he was kind of an antiques conman. Semi-con–he was a conman for the good. And that’s worth getting on Netflix just to check him out in such a different setting.
RB:I found a film the other day with him in it, in which he plays a middle-aged, astute, unabashed homosexual.
RB:It’s called 44-Inch Chest. And the core story is that a guy, after 20 years of marriage, the guy’s wife tells him that she’s found someone else, and he does something bad to her, and then is inconsolable to all his friends, which include Ian McShane, are now trying to help him end, get through this. In the meantime, they have the paramour of his wife bound and gagged in a closet.
MD:Is he–is that a new movie?
RB:I don’t think it is.
MD:One of the last episodes of one of the seasons of Love Joy, they interviewed the cast. This particular show is–I loved it, but it’s like, it appealed to my kind of British nostalgia, so I’m not sure I’d say that it’s something you should race out and watch other than to see an episode to see him in that setting, but he was being interviewed, and when it kind of came to him, they showed clips of all the work he’d done. And he’s kind of one of these actors that, you don’t realize this because he seems to appear out of nowhere in some magnificent role, but I think had been a fulltime working actor since he was 16 and was in everything! They had this old scene he played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and he’s running around as this wild man on a moor, and it’s sort of this really crappy 1960s television black-and-white kind of footage. It’s really fun–
RB:Did you see him in–it was an NBC series called Kings or something like that–
MD:You know, I didn’t see it because it got canceled before it ever made it onto Netflix.
RB:This whole phenomenon, I mean there are two things that have happened for me that are a joy and a burden: the opportunity to sample all these films that are pretty decent that just never had PR budgets or, you know, for some reason, were ignored. But again, all these opportunities to watch all these–you know, my current queue is 300 movies.
MD:Yeah, you know, and it’s really depressing. My wife actually has a novel coming out in the summer, and she–Thomas Carlyle comes up in it, and–I want to take credit for feeding her this line–which she uses, which I love, which is that Thomas Carlyle, I guess when he died, when he was being honored, someone said, “This is the last man on Earth to have read everything, and he always will be.” And you think about it, a man’s reading or a person’s reading obligations that don’t include Proust and Beckett and Thomas Mann and Tolstoy–anyway, the point is that it’s very depressing at this point in time because you just know you’re going to die, and there’s going to be entire worlds of narrative that you’re never ever going to even know about.
RB:That’s right. So I think that for people–I don’t know what the dividing line is, but the (cultural) consciousness of our civilization seems to shrink, you know. Twenty years–oh wow, its twenty maybe–twenty years, maybe it’s ten years now–I mean, I remember pretty much everything since the end of World War II, I mean, you know, I’ve lived some of it and I’ve read pretty close to (that amount), so having that sort of general knowledge makes me interested in too much. And you’re right, it can be really–you know, “depressing” isn’t the right word, but sort of just unsatisfying.
MD:You’re never going to get to the end of it or the bottom of it.
RB:So I think you probably just have to resign yourself to enjoying all this stuff. So you mentioned that your wife’s got a book coming out. So you’re both novelists.
RB:What’s that like? What’s that like for your kid?
MD: He’s four and a half. He doesn’t seem to be too damaged yet, but– I don’t know. I have a very happy family, and I don’t know if it’s–I mean, there are a lot of examples of why there are advantages of having two writers in the family. I mean, it’s very easy for me to be grouchy and say, “I had a crappy morning. I don’t want to talk.” And I don’t have to explain that. She knows what I’m talking about. And it was–
RB:Do you show each other your work?
MD:Yeah. Definitely, and I think that we–our stuff is–she writes very literary stuff, but–it’s just different than mine, so there doesn’t feel like any competition.
RB:Do you think your wife is a better writer than you?
Allison Lynn, author of the Exiles
MD:Nah, no! Definitely not!
RB:Would you tell her that?
MD:Maybe that’s the illusion that keeps our marriage together.
RB:Would you say it to her?
MD:Yes, in fact, I would, and she’d laugh like you’re laughing, and just as my Van Halen detail, you’d be left to your own thoughts to figure out whether I was joking or not.
RB:Let me ask you why Indianapolis was–what did you call it? –“the strangest place in the world? “ “In the the Universe?”
MD:Well, first of all, I do mean that with a certain amount of affection.
RB:I took it that way. I grew up in the Midwest (area). I’m assuming the positive.
MD:I moved around a lot growing up, so I’ve seen a lot of places, but just kind of landing there after 11 years in New York, it was a real culture shock, and I think that it also speaks to just how strange it was going from being kind of constantly at the ragged edge of financial disaster and debt. We rented an apartment in Chelsea that we had no business renting because we really couldn’t afford it, but it just was where we were living. We had a child, and moving was just–and 2008–I mean, I know it was rough on everybody, but I mean our industry died. I mean, the life of the hack writer where we got a lot of our money just ended, and it’s not coming back. And so–
RB:Wouldn’t you prefer to say Grub Street writer?
MD:Grub Street, right. Well, I use both. Do you know Robert Danton–I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at his stuff, but he’s one of my favorite writers. And I love–it wasn’t actually until I started reading his books that I took a certain amount of pride in being this kind of pen for hire. I rented a tiny little office on 28th and 5th in New York, and it’s the old Tin Pan alley, and I love–this was like the last rough block in Manhattan. –So we did a lot of work for money just to— it was our livelihood. And that just ended.
RB:There’s a picture that I get when you say that, is of a Latin American train station, where a man is sitting outside the entrance of the train station, and he is a pen for hire [escritor]. He will write letters. He will write anything for anyone that they need. And because so many have the people don’t know how to write. And I think that may still true here!
MD:Or you wish that maybe sometimes it would be better if it were true if people were hiring out their work rather than believing they can actually manage it themselves!
RB:Well, I would seriously consider it I was actually thinking about creating sort of a website or business card saying that I would write love letters, personal letter, business letters,story synopses, anything that requires some competence in the English language.
MD:Yeah, I think you should do that. The problem is that you need a client who knows what a good product looks like, which is–you’re going to have a hard time finding that.
RB:You’re not decrying the competence of modern magazine editors, are you?
MD: Um–uh–well, you know–uh–no. Well, actually, there’s so little work in that world now that it doesn’t matter. Most of my work came–I have a special talent for writing for boys who hate reading, so I wrote a lot of stuff, a lot of books, under pennames, or parts of reading series for intervention programs. Basically, talking to fourteen-year-olds who’re reading at a 5th grade level. And the problem is that–and the reason why I say, at least my industry’s never coming back–after the collapse, so many of these houses used that opportunity to scale back the wages, and at the same time that the blogging world was entering the field, and suddenly, people were willing to write for 5 cents a word. And I mean, I’m sorry, but a lot of the education people have pedagogical backgrounds–they’re experts in education–but they’re not storytellers. And when you’re writing for a kid who hates to read, the story is the thing that’s going to keep them hooked in or not.
RB:When you talked about having a client that appreciates a good product, you see, I would aim much lower than you were going. I would aim at people who clearly understand they can’t write, but they need to communicate something in a text. And I guarantee that I would charge more than 5 cents a word.
MD:Well see, the thing is that then you’d have to explain to them why you’re not the 5-cent person because they’re going to go cheap if they can’t discern–
RB:They wouldn’t even know about that. I would be the first person that they ever met who would offer them this opportunity.Anyway, tell me about life in Indianapolis, though. You didn’t really explain to me.
MD:Our first house that we rented from a couple that teaches high school abroad, so they were gone nine months out of the year, and they were looking for people to sublet who would give the house up for the summer. They also didn’t want college kids. I think they figured that a couple with a two-year-old at that point was a safe bet. And it was just a gorgeous–I mean, I’ll never live in a house this nice again. It was gigantic, and it was arts and crafts built in 1912, and everything was meticulously restored. I was paying $1200 for a rent there, and we had five gigantic bedrooms and five–I mean, let’s see, I mean I have to actually think about this–three fully finished, beautifully tiled bathrooms, and a beautiful kitchen, huge yard on a double lot, and we were paying a third for what we were paying for a 500-square apartment in–
RB:Did that change your sort of idea of upkeep and cleanliness? Were you more inclined to maintain the museum-like quality of–?
MD:I always loved the line in–it’s the famous line in “Alice’s Restaurant” about the couple who had the–did they live in a lighthouse? –I’ve forgotten most of the details except the one, which is they had that gigantic space which, rather than meaning they could have this beautiful space to sit and live in,that, rather they didn’t have to take the garbage out except for once a year! So that’s a little bit–we had so much space that we just kind of spread out in this, chaotic way.
RB:That was your first house. How long have you been there?
MD:We were there for two years.
RB:You were there? You’re not there anymore?
MD:No. We bought a house. There was never any real-estate bubble in Indianapolis, so nothing really ever got crazy inflated, and–
RB:And you’re teaching school at Butler University?Which is–which is in Indianapolis?
MD:It’s in the city. Right in the city.
RB:And does Indianapolis sort of represent the typical Midwestern, northern big city? I mean, it is the biggest city in Indiana, right?
MD:Yes, it is. It’s a little over a million, and I think it’s like 17th in the nation in terms of size.
RB:And is it overcrowded or not?
MD:Well, it’s definitely–it’s one of those cities that has enough farm space on either side of it that it just kind of grows out and out and out. They could have done with a little more vertical planning, but–
RB:You know Chicago, yes?
MD:Yeah, I’ve been there a bunch, but I don’t–
RB:This is a city that I think, past maybe a mile from the lake, you don’t see things over three or four stories, you know. Thus, the horizon looking west is, and thus the city spread out over a nice grid.
MD:Yeah, it is a weird–there is some kind of line–you know, I lived in St. Louis for two years, and it was the same sensation that, somehow, look to the west and God knows what was there.
RB:Do you have any feelings about the phrase “flyover zone”?
MD:Well, like I said, I was born in Minneapolis, but I lived there ‘til I was eight, so I don’t have too much–
RB:Let me just recap–Minneapolis, New York, Wellesley, Paris–
MD:I lived in London for four years. Jersey. Lived in Switzerland, Geneva, for a year. Lived in–I went to college in Colorado. I went to graduate school in Wisconsin. And then, I went to another graduate school–
MD:Yeah, Madison. Then Washington University.
RB:What is the longest you’ve been in (one spot)? Butler? Right now, where you are?
MD:Well, I was in New York for 11 years, so that was the longest I’ve ever been in one spot. But yeah, I guess I’ve been at Butler for two and a half years. And yeah, I guess there’s something strange in that. I mean, having the same job, the same sort of set of colleagues for two and a half years is–
RB:Are you on a tenure track?
MD:I am. I am.
RB:Did your coming to Butler coincide with their rise in the college basketball world?
MD:I was part of the cause of that. No,unfortunately, I had nothing to do with that, although, I’d like to claim it. It’s amazing–I have all the obvious issues about sort of the problems of college sports, but I think–
RB:It’s not so obvious. A lot of people don’t have them. I think I share them.
MD:I mean, mostly in football, I just feel like it’s such a moneymaking scam and kind of has so many intractable problems that there’s almost no point in thinking about i.t
RB:Well, no point for you and me, but, you know, like that poor kid at Baylor— Jones, Perry Jones–a few years ago was suspended because his mother was given something by someone [because she was on the verge of being evicted. ]
MD:It’s crazy. It really is crazy. But what I’d say is that Butler has none of those problems as far as I can tell because we’re kind of a small school, we have to move a little bit in a moneyball kind of mode, and what I mean by that is that–I don’t know what kind of deep statistics they’re using–but they certainly approve top flight athletes that might not be the first choice for a Duke or–but it works out great. And I think the other thing is having a small school–I mean, we were not going to get Cody Zeller–I don’t know if you know him at IU–he claimed that his final choices were us and IU and Chapel Hill and Butler, and he seems like a great guy and a lot of people really like him. And certainly everybody in Indianapolis, as much as they love Butler, they love IU just as much–
RB:IU is in Bloomington, right? It’s not in–
MD:Bloomington, right. It’s about an hour south. But the thing is that, at IU, he is a rock star, I mean, that guy is–and it’s impossible to be that kind of rock star at a school the size of Butler because it’s not the same atmosphere.
RB:–do you care what people in your neck of the woods think about the current Notre Dame story (Star footballer Manti Te’o is involved in a hoax about a fake girlfriend –is that a big topic of interest?
MD:Well, you know, I haven’t really grasped it until–I was getting ready to come out here, and I’ve been in New York, so I’ve only been figuring it out recently.I guess everybody’s only figuring out because it’s such a mysterious story.
RB:Could you write this?Could someone write that story as a short fiction?
MD:It is unbelievable, but I think the thing is that–the truth is, as unbelievable as it is, people fall in love under unusual circumstances–I mean, I’m thinking about my family in northern Wisconsin.All the Norwegian people up there–I tell you, you started writing letters to some woman that you had a vague interaction with your family.
RB:That was fifty, sixty years ago. Not in 2013.
MD:Right, but I don’t think it’s an implausible thing that someone could have some kind of deep emotional tie to–
RB:See, I share your gradual immersion of the story. I know whispers about it, but the main thing for me is why should I care? The kid hasn’t killed anyone. He hasn’t–what’s he done, and why do people care?
MD:I think that’s the thing. This is back to the guy who’s getting busted for the mother selling–old football jerseys. I think that the question is, was he trading on it? And I don’t get the sense that he was actively going around, trying to get promotional deals based on his sorrows. If he was, that might be something different, but I think he just got caught up in this–I’d be kind of embarrassed if I discovered this hoax. I’m not sure I’d want to start telling everybody that, “I’d been played. I’ve fallen in love with an imaginary person who was–.” You know.
RB:He was–let’s place him in context. He’s a twenty-something-year-old kid who plays for a midwestern university. Catholic university. Where’s the story?
MD:Right, right, right.
RB:You know, Gail Collins, I thought Collins said something great. She wrote about this story, but then she mentioned that Notre Dame has rallied around this kid, but they forgot to pay attention to this girl who was raped, and they did nothing for her except discredit her
Water break/Parking meter break
RB:Most of what you know–
MD:Is from national media.I just haven’t really kind of figured out what people are saying. You know what I mean?
RB:It speaks to something even more prevalent and maybe distressing, which is you find yourself being conscious of (all sorts of things) and you really didn’t choose.I don’t care about the Kardashians.You know? I don’t care about this particular situation.I’m sure there’s a whole host of stories, almost in a kind of suspended animation. I never cared about Michael Jackson, you know? But nonetheless, you’re [can be] imposed upon by this shit stream of information. So you have to find a way of making it useful.
MD:Yeah. Yeah, I guess there’s no avoiding it.
RB:I mean, what do you want to pay attention to?You have, again, all these choices. You can watch Netflix all day, or put together a playlist on Spotify, or you can write novels.
MD:Yeah, well, that’s one of the ways of controlling the narrative that you get, is if the narrative is the one that you’re immersing yourself in and writing yourself.It’s interesting to me that I was seeing people talk about video games–and that how one of the great advances in culture and narrative is that people are going to actually get to play a role in creating their own story. But my response is always like, look, there was always a blank piece of paper and a pen. People could have always,
RB:That reminds me of a Steve Martin quote.“Look what I did! And I started out just with a piece of paper and a pencil.”
MD:You can always participate in the creation of your own narrative. I don’t know why that people think that–
RB:Well, there is a reason. First of all, just look at–how large is the class of human beings who actually have whatever it takes–the perseverance, the diligence, the striving–to create something? How many people actually, how many people have the drive to make decisions? I mean, it’s not like these things are parceled out universally? And I suspect, or I worry–personally worry–that when you immerse yourself in–and you’re conscious of all these narratives and you immerse yourself in them–like I do; I read, I watch movies, listen to all kinds of music–that you have a really warped or you develop a warped sense of the actualities.
MD:This is something I always love in Chekov stories that two of the re occurring characters are flighty ladies who read novels and doctors who read newspapers. And the doctors who read newspapers are always talking about some far-flung issue that they don’t really understand, and the women who are reading the novels are in a sort of entranced–and basically, what Chekov is describing is the soap opera. And it’s funny coming from Chekov, right, because he’s obviously a fiction writer, but there is this illusion, I think—that somehow, newspapers used to be this bastion of high-brow learning and the thinking man read the newspaper when, in fact, before there was television and Internet, people used to talk about newspapers the same way they talk about the Kardashians. Just rabble-rousing sort of nonsense.
RB:You see that in portrayals of the old West, the West being conquered, you know. Journalists from back east, just looking to stir up a story. That’s a reoccurring theme.I forgot what I–I was going to go somewhere with that–. Well, so is that the impulse that moved you to become a writer? The interest in creating your own narrative? Just sitting there, coming up with something that–?
MD:Yeah. Yeah, I mean a lot of writers describe themselves as sort of taking to books from a very young age and being lost in them, and I was never really like that. But I was definitely a daydreamer Mostly, you know, when people would be talking to me, I wouldn’t be listening. I’d be thinking my own things.
RB:Well, that’s exactly the kind of disconnect that I’m describing as a possibility condition of being literary, you know? Have you seen Django Unchained? So in this movie, Christopher Waitz‘s playing a German-born bounty hunter in the Deep South in 1861. His diction is perfectly accurate polysyllabic English, and he realizes when he’s talking to these roughnecks on horses that he’s talking past them. But he doesn’t really quite give up, but he entertains himself with the notion that he’s tossing out pearls before swine. And I think when, and I wonder that when one spends a lot of time reading stories, paying attention to prose, if somehow that doesn’t severely shift the way you deal with people who don’t pay attention to the language, to language in general.
MD:I also didn’t really grow up in a family that cared much about books in any kind of sort of passionate way. I had a very smart family. Well, I should say my sister is a children’s book writer and pretty successful, so–
RB:The same one who is a TV producer?
MD:No. Another one. So somehow, we all ended up in a creative world, but what I would say is my dad was a banker, but in a different era than what bankers are in now. And he was the best storyteller I’ve ever known, but the entire thing was oral. I never saw him read a novel ever.
RB:You’re certainly refreshing my contention of the fact that we presume that you have to be wrapped up in books in order to be a storyteller or to be able to talk about the world. You probably miss a lot of conversations that we don’t engage in because we don’t think we’re going to have that any kind of personal take away of –it’s why I paid attention in this story to the fact that Henry is listening to others— there’s a way when you get older, you’re more inclined to talk to anybody about the world because it’s–
Michael Dahlie (photo by Rober Birnbaum)
MD:I did have one kind of—my mother— has a huge family in the South. I mean like extensive, endless relatives–my father was in the Navy and my mother, she was a schoolteacher in Norfolk, Virginia, but they lived in Petersburg, so close to North Carolina border, and there just was an endless, endless stream of old people that I took the years to straighten out who was who, and they grew up —this generation all grew up in the Depression, so there was this constant sort of, “Okay, you’re going to go live with this aunt. You’re going to go live with this uncle. And then, we’re going to switch over.” My grandfather was raised by his parents in one half of a duplex and one of his sisters and brother was raised in the other half of the duplex by aunts and uncles. Just kind of a very fluid sort of world. But most of these people helped raise my mother as well. And so, every year, for at least a month, we’d kind of be traveling around in Virginia and seeing these people and visiting these people and–to some extent, I guess that that was true in northern Wisconsin where I had a lot of old Norwegian sort of relatives and Scotch relatives as well. Yeah, it’s one of the kind of shocking things about living in New York, that I really felt like my entire life was with thirty-something, some twenty-something, my sister’s friends —we were so cut off from any other generation.
RB:Yeah, again, I think that the generation–there’s a sort of the narrowing cultural windows as you get lower, as you get younger. I was always struck by a writer who taught at NYU told me–he taught freshman English–I think this was in the year 2000–and he told me his kids, his freshman kids, didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was. This was maybe ten years prior, right?
MD:This is one of the most astounding things when I teach young people that things I assume they know about–they weren’t part of my generation, but they only seemed to have happened or been important ten years ago, and–yeah, it’s very strange I’m trying to think of a good example–but I’d refer to something that just seems like it would be a touchstone of modern American culture, and I’ll have students, even smart sort of worldly students, staring at me like they have no idea what I’m talking about. I guess there’s a lot of writing these days and this sort of rapidity of our culture and how quickly things become commonplace. I’m usually distrustful of a lot of those arguments, but this one I think is true.
RB:You are teaching what subjects?
MD:I teach creative writing. We have a new MFA program.
RB:So the people in it are aspiring to be career writers?
MD:They are. The program is new, and a lot of the students who we recruit from are from the area, and they tend to be a little older than your average sort of, you know, 24-year-old, 25-year-old.
RB: How old?
MD:Well, I’d say that maybe–25% are older than I am. One of the advantages of starting an MFA program at Butler and one of the reasons this has worked really well and has been a kind of shocking success in a lot of ways — we’re the only MFA program in Indianapolis and a lot of our students have lives here.They’ve got kids in the public schools, they’ve got spouses or themselves that have jobs, and–
RB:So is this night school, or is this night and day?
MD:It’s a full proper program, but we have classes at night and we’re pretty flexible with other people’s schedules.
RB:Let’s see, Indiana University, IU, has a writing program.
MD:Yeah, they do
RB:Notre Dame has a writing program. Does Purdue have a writing program?
MD:They do, yeah; those are the 4 MFA programs.
RB:What are the expectations of the people who are taking these courses? What do you give them to–when they start asking like, you know–do they ask about agents? Do they ask about how do you get published? Do they ask about submitting to small magazines?
MD:They do, and–you know, I went to Washington University to get my MFA, which is–
RB:St Louis. Now, was Charlie Newman there?
MD:Charlie Newman was there. Charlie was a professor of mine. I loved Charlie.
A young Charles Newman courtesy of John Hopkins University magazine
RB:I knew Charlie. Dalkey Archive is publishing In Partial Disgrace
MD:Yeah, his Onudula–this has been a project of his– this had been his mission since he got out of…The great thing about Newman as a colleague, I can see now as a professor that he could definitely drive you crazy. But you need people like that in MFA programs because he was such an inspiration! I mean, you know, he had–he would miss workshop all the time because of these imaginary sick aunts that he was always claiming to have to tend to–
RB:Did he have a drinking problem still?
MD:Unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. Well, yeah, this–his last couple of years, he was not behaving himself more or less and he really–I think, he was kind of lost— well, he was a professor at John Hopkins at 24. His career got started really early. One of his colleagues—someone that I was friends with —had described Newman once as saying like, “He’s the kind of guy who’s too smart to get well.” In the sense that he could never go through any kind of program because he was just such a–I mean, it’s not just that he was cynical, but he was probably also generally used to being the smartest guy in the room and so wasn’t going to be willing to listen to someone who might not have been as smart as he was but who knew what was going on and what Charlie was up to. But it was–I mean, it was catastrophic by the time I knew him–but he was also very functional. He was so funny, and he was a very sentimental, charming, warm guy.
RB:Christopher Hitchens also had, by reputation, this great capacity for drink. I witnessed it at least once, so I could tell you, and, you know, his editors would be astounded how quickly he could put out copy without breaking a sweat.
RB:Do you approach teaching writing from the discussion of books or discussing the work that the students are doing?
MD:Mostly, it’s the work that the people are writing. And I had an introduction to fiction and writing class this past semester, and a couple weeks in, I abandoned using the textbook we were using just because it was so horrible.
RB:Do you read?
MD:Do I read?
RB: Do you read contemporary fiction?
MD:I do as much as I can. At this point, so much of my reading is obviously student work, but yeah, I read as much as possible. I’m really addicted to audio books–I don’t know if you do audio books at all, but–
RB: As my second take on the book.
MD:I haven’t properly formulated this, so this is just like, you know, coffeehouse chatter, not any kind of formal–but the more I do audio books, the more that I think that the printed word is some kind of weird sort of like stop gap until human beings figured out how to record the human voice. ‘Cause I feel like storytelling–it just happens most naturally orally, and it’s just amazing–I’m not sure that there are many printed books that I’ve been lost to the way I’ve been lost to books on audio, and I can’t quite explain that, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit it because I think that–I don’t know–I sound like I’m some kind of– well, illiterate fool–but–
RB:It’s interesting you’ve mentioned this to me because my mother is currently a problem for my sister, and me and I’m trying to find an entryway, allowing her to actually process certain information. I know that, in conversation, she lets very little in. She hears what she wants to hear, but she gets very, much more–she gets more detached when she reads something and/or sees something, and–you know, I think that, for some people, it’s the reverse.
RB:They don’t, can’t, don’t want to process the words on paper. I have opted for, by the way, to–you know, people ask me why I don’t podcast. It’s pretty easy, you know, just–but I sit and transcribe these conversations, but try to transcribe them in a way that has a natural–that it’s natural dialogue. That it’s the way people talk to each other. And–I don’t think it’s better, but I think–it’s because I’m inclined to think that people read, when they read, they get more. They take more in, you know?
MD:One of the bad things about the audio book is that you can’t reread sentences, and I find that, when I have the best reading experience, is in print. I can reread a paragraph.
RB:You mean it’s not the same to just go back two minutes–?
MD:Well, it’s just such a hassle to press the button.
RB:I’m sure that Suri –you can get the (Suri) on your iPhone—can help
MD:Yeah, I know. I just got to wait for technology to evolve a little bit. There is one very strange thing about audio books and–this is why I have to say that I–I hate to talk about this because I haven’t figured it out all properly in a formal way–is that you also have an actor reading the book. And I did an audio book by a guy who–I only remember the title of the book; my wife reads absolutely everything, so my reading list is largely determined for me–but he read his own book, and it’s terrible! And I couldn’t get through it, and my wife is saying, “This is one of the best books I’ve read all year.” On the other hand, I just did Russo’s Elsewhere on audio, and he reads it himself, and he does a magnificent job, and I’m not sure that an actor could have quite gotten–
RB: For some people–there are people–Richard Ford can read his stuff. You know, Charlie Baxter can read his stuff. Those are the ones that I know about, you know, for the most part–yeah, for the most part there, it takes an actor. I remember reading Louis de Berniere’s Birds Without Wings, which is this–it’s a 19th century epic that takes place in Anatolia, with all sorts of different characters with different backgrounds–religious, ethnic–and you know, one of the first things that was overcome for me was that the guy, the reader, could pronounce the names of the people–it’s like my problem with reading Russian stories. I don’t–can’t remember the names because I can’t pronounce them
MD:Yeah, yeah, I know. I just did Kurlansky’s book on the Basques, and apparently, the actor had to be really coached–
MD:Mark Kurlansky, yeah.
RB:He wrote a book about the Basques?
MD:Yeah, The Basque History of the World–it’s so good! Oh my God. I mean, it really is good, and it’s really fascinating, and really, really funny. He went to Butler!
RB: He’s written on fish. He’s written a book about minor-league baseball. Teaching.
MD:Yeah, and¬ he’s got this new book out on Clarence Birdseye that I’m dying to read too.
MD:Clarence Birdseye. He invented flash freezing.
RB:You’re saying he recited his own book
MD: No. He did not. Someone else read it. But Basque is one of these–it’s a totally singular language. There’s not a single language like it in the area. Finland is the only language that resembles it in any kind of way, and it’s just grammatically. But these words are, you know, just impossible to pronounce, and they sound so weird on (paper).
RB:(And he) pronounces them?
MD:The actor does, but I think the actor really had to be coached to get them right, but if they’re a good actor, they can kind of make it sound fluid. But I guess one of the things about having the actor is a little bit like having a pianist play a piece of music that–so much comes down to interpretation. It’s not the sheet music, even though, you know, Beethoven wrote it. It can sound completely different depending on who’s doing it.
RB:You face the same situation if you read and then reread a book (at some moment). Sometimes, one wonders why, you liked a book the first time, dislike it the second time, or dislike the book the first time but are convinced somehow to try it again. How does that happen? It strikes me that you may be like me in this sense–I don’t have a theory, a literary theory. And my critique is really ad hoc and simple. I like a good story. I like to watch people–I like to hear people talk to each other in an interesting way. I like interesting facts thrown in. A nice narrative arc. So when I read these critical theory attempts, I just say, “What?”
MD:The complement to this–one of the other sides of that are these how-to manuals on how to write fiction. One of the things about dealing with students is trying to get them to stop reading these things. And because they want you to tell them how to do it, and the only thing I can say is, “Look, if you want to write a novel go to your basement, and seven years later, you might have a novel.” And they laugh, “Yeah, but really, tell me how to do it.” And I say, “No. That’s how you do it!” And they don’t want to hear that because they want the trick. I don’t know if you know, if you’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, her most recent one–
RB:Well, is it called Kids or something?
MD:Yeah, Just Kids. She’s talking about–you know, she had this long relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe — she was talking to him, being in the printing room with him, and taking the photograph is one thing but, obviously, (an enormous thing) back in the day I guess it still is today with computers. The print is just as important. And she’d say how he’d have hundreds of prints of the same photograph, and he’d say, “This is the one. That’s the one where the magic is.” And I think that that magic is–trying to–in some ways, it’s trying to–I do understand why people write literary criticism. I do think it has a value, but sometimes, it seems false in the same way that someone might describe why they’re in love with someone. I mean if they really have a specific quantifiable list, then they’re probably lying that they’re in love with them?
RB:It’s funny. I take my latest displeasure about a critique was–today, I read somebody who wrote about this new series on FX called The Following, which is, you know, serial murderer who happens to be a college professor whose fascinated with Edgar Allan Poe. This critic was, like, bombastically deriding the possibility that a TV series would violate, you know, Poe’s artistic code or something like that.
MD:You know, when I was at Wisconsin, I was in the history program there, and I was–
RB:Really? I almost went there –was George Mosse there?
MD:George Mosse was there, yeah, yeah.
MD:Well, no, he was emeritus. He was still alive, but he was–
RB:[What about]William Appleton Williams?
MD:Yeah.He was definitely gone by the time I was there. But I had this professor who I actually liked quite a bit, but he always used to deride Harpers and the New Yorker as middle-brow, which I thought was –basically, it was revealing what was, in fact, the kind of real anger that I think a lot of scholars feel, which is that, somehow, they do this magnificent work, and it’s not appreciated. And it is true that, you know, when you look at this guy’s accomplishments as an historian, it involved sitting 15 years in basements of convents in Germany going through marriage records, and–
MD:And then a journalist kind of turns it into this story, and–I forget how we got onto this, but–
RB:The value of literary criticism and whether or not theory is beside the point.
MD:Right.Oh! I have one of my colleagues at Butler is–he has a PhD and is a scholar, but he’s billed as a creative nonfiction writer, and he wrote a book about an abolitionist and also a memoir about–his name’s Andrew Levy–he wrote a book called A Brain Larger than the Sky, which is a book about migraines. It has a kind of Kurlansky aspect to it in that it details sort of the history of migraines,
RB:Mary Roach does the same kind of thing.
MD:I mean, I know the name– yeah, she’s at Norton. But he’s got this book on Twain that he’s been working on for a long time, and it’s coming out with Simon and Schuster and I think it’s going to be a big release. I think they’re excited about it. And he’s an excellent writer, so I think it should be great, but he’s doing his due diligence as a thinking man and sending it out to the proper people to get their reviews, and I think he’s had some genuinely positive reactions, but there are people who’ve devoted their lives to writing these monographs that only 300 people read and they can’t respond to any piece of culture without actually unloading this anger about the fact that no one cares about what they know about.
RB:Yeah, of course, because historians up until the last few years–well, that’s what’s created this explosion in, you know, the McCulloughs and Stephen Ambroses. They’re writing more popular history, more accessible history. And then, Ken Burns comes along and does a show —
MD:Stephen Ambrose got his PhD at Wisconsin and did a lot of his research there because we had such great World War II archives. And there was this absolute wall between the history department and Stephen Ambrose. I mean, there was no way that that department was going to allow Stephen Ambrose to teach a class! And the thing is I see both sides of it. I see the poor guy who’s devoted his whole life to going through archives that would never have been known about if they hadn’t read every single word. But on the flip side, you’ve got to cut these guys some slack. I think one of the great examples of this is–I don’t know if you’ve read 1491. It’s the book about the year before Columbus arrived, and he just came out with–I forget the guy’s name, but he just came out with a sequel, 1493, which I haven’t read. And he kind of writes about–he’s a journalist really, and he writes about how he couldn’t believe–he kind of started doing the research and he couldn’t believe that this story hadn’t been told. But the point is that the story had been told over and over in minutia at academic conferences by people who had literally spent 40 years digging through garbage heaps examining teeth!
RB:Well, they couldn’t get anyone to read or write the scholastic journal articles?
MD:Or they simply didn’t care. I promise you that at Wisconsin, you weren’t trying to get a book deal at Random House. You were trying to get a book deal at Princeton [University Press]. And I think that these scholars don’t care about Harper Collins. They don’t care about New York publishing. They just want to sit in their garbage heap and examine bones!
RB:That’s what’s opened the floodgates, you know.Dan Okrent wrote a very serviceable book about Prohibition, you know, and he did an admirable job of not only talking about the law but the social-movement context.And, of course, then Burns made the film on it. I would maintain that I’ve learned as much if not more about American history from Gore Vidal’s novels and EL Doctorow novels and Geraldine Brooks‘ novels than I have reading history texts.
MD:Right, well, that’s how I feel, how I’ve felt about 1491.I loved that book, and there wasn’t a page where my mind wasn’t blown. But he’s a journalist piecing the story together. He’s not the guy who’s done the 40 years, and you can see why there’d be some friction between the actual storyteller and the–
RB:It’s called jealousy.
RB:It’s called you’re getting more attention than I am. What about people like–what do you think about this thing that’s called creative nonfiction? You know, the Erik Larsons and the Mark Kurlanskys)?
MD:I obviously think that the term just always sounds strange to me. I do have to say that I like it more when it’s about something as opposed to, like, memoir, this self-reflective–because I think there’s a lot of indulgent, “I’m a writer, and I don’t…”¬
RB:Are you familiar with (Benjamin Anastas’) book, Too Good to Be True?
RB:The possibility of self-indulgence is certainly there. Frankly, I don’t know of anybody who isn’t a writer who really wants to read that story. It’s well told. It’s more vivid if you understand the world of writing and trying to make your living as a writer.
MD:My wife loved that book. But yeah, a lot of people do obviously.I suppose it depends on the quality of the work.
MD:And I think that there’s a lot of good stuff and bad stuff that’s trying to do the same thing.
RB:There are gems in the book, one of which I thought said something to the effect of having seen, the downside or a certain side of the writing life, he didn’t understand what the prestige and the — it’s not such a glamorous station in life.
MD:Yeah. Especially these days. Well, speaking of Gore Vidal, did he die recently, or did
RB:A few years
MD: They were quoting him, and he said–he was talking about how he was being interviewed by someone, and he said, “Yeah, I used to be a famous novelist.” And the interviewer corrected him and said, “What’re you talking about? You know, people still read your books. You still sell really well.” He said, “No. When I say, ‘I used to be a famous novelist,’ I’m saying, ‘I used to live in a time when you could be a famous novelist.’” And this is slipping away, you know?
RB:Yeah. I was, I mean, he’s another one of those great American aphorists— I always liked his observation about the four most beautiful words in the English language: “I told you so.” Who occupies his kind of social /cultural perch, you know. Jon Stewart? Steven Colbert, I mean, who else is there? Sort of mocking, the establishment and the status quo and also, people seem not to be not paying attention–
MD:I know, and I think those are two really good examples.
RB:I mean Hitchens was close, but he was certainly very literary, but he’d spent a lot of time in television. And he was certainly a charismatic guy?
MD:Yeah, it is an interesting question.
RB:I wonder if England is really a greater repository of those kinds of public intellectuals than the United States. I mean (England) is–he’s here now–but he’s a guy who always says something worthy of attention. You know, about anything.
MD:You know of Tony Judt
MD:The book that he wrote about–?
RB:His account of dying of ALS?
MD:No, it was the reaction to Stalin by French intellectuals. You know I’ve spent a lot of time in France and there–and I often hear it in the U.S. that they have the great model of the public intellectual, the novelist who can, you know, write the great op ed or that kind of thing. But this book is–I can’t remember the name of it–but it’s basically about how–I mean people were crawling across the border out of Stalin’s Russia, Stalin’s Soviet Union with these stories, and you know, people like Sartre were saying, “You’re mistaken. It’s not true.” And what were Sartre’s qualifications? He was a novelist and philosopher. You know? I mean, and so, I mean, I do think you have to be careful about what people who have a lot of charisma deliver in–
RB:Yeah, I mean, who’s the big gun there now? Bernard Henri Levi who is referred to as BHL
MD:Right, right, right.
RB:I mean, you know, it’s like a supermodel. You get mentioned by your first name or your initials.
MD:Right, right, right.
RB:So–let’s get down to Earth here.
RB:You’re–you have your second novel. You’ve done your second novel. You’ve published your second novel. The ghostwriting thing is drying up.
MD:In the book.
RB:No, in your life.
RB:Didn’t you say that industry is going?
MD:Yeah, I mean–my ghostwriting life–basically, I wrote for young readers, for kids, and most of my ghostwriting was pretty crass stuff. People would basically be contracted for books, and they didn’t want to write them, or they’d take on too much work. And so they’d pass it off. But yeah in a lot of ways, that work’s over. I do have some pretty more high-tone novels for young readers that I wrote myself and sold via an agent that I loved, but that–I would still do that kind of thing. The problem is that it’s–I guess that every time I think about what I want to write about next, that’s not–it’s just not on the list now.
RB:What do you want to write about? Are you writing a novel now?
MD:I’m almost done with a novel that I’ve had a bunch of sections of it published. This, also under a pen name. I think I might publish it under my real name, I haven’t decided.
RB:What would the decision be based on? Whether you liked it? Whether you were proud of it, or whether–?
MD:Well, no, I mean, I love this novel, so–. It’s just–it’s been most fun writing under a pen name for–actually, I mean it’s a very hard thing to describe because there are so many reasons I went into it. One of them is that it’s so filled with sex and drugs that I simply didn’t want my mother to know that I was writing about this kind of thing. But in some ways, the protagonist is–well, I mean, in every single way, the protagonist is the opposite of who I am.
RB:At the end of this book, Henry displays or exhibits an amazing amount of sort of relaxation and confidence that he’ll be able to write whatever he wants to write, and it’ll be at least satisfying for him.
MD:Yeah. What are–are you asking is this true in my life?
MD: One of the great things about being a Grub Street writer for so many years is that I don’t ever really suffer from writer’s block. I mean, it comes pretty easy when I have an idea. And, I’ve got a good gig right now at Butler that gives me the time to write.
RB:Do you teach every semester?
MD:Not in the summer, but I think I’m working out a gig that I can teach in France a creative writing class, so I might teach a month out of the summer. But you know, one of the problems is–I had this job at Oscar Meyer for a year–
Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
RB:Oscar Mayer meats?
MD:Yeah. Their corporate headquarters, but that’s also where they make the bacon bits and the “Lunchables “ and everything. And I was never as productive in my life as when I worked there because I woke up every morning and thought, “Holy shit! I’m working at a sausage factory! I’d better do something to get out of here!” And this was after I’d gotten–
RB:What were you doing?
MD:Well, I had gotten my masters degree at Madison in history, and I was still in the PhD program, but I took a year’s leave of absence because I was thinking I wanted to be a novelist instead. And–
RB: Started working at a meatpacking plant?
MD:Well, it was a great gig. I mean I was a temp. I filled in for someone who was on extended maternity leave, so I had the same job for almost a year. One of the things that I tell my students a lot–
RB:Anything bad ever happened to you?
MD:When I was at Oscar Mayer?
RB:Anywhere! Because so far, you were happy with the bank job that you had after you left school. You didn’t mind living in Brooklyn. You had a job at a meatpacking plant that was great–
MD:No one’s ever asked me this question. Usually, people ask me when, after they’ve talked to me for a while, if anything good has ever happened in my life!
MD:Because, you know, I’m generally a–I’m much more of a dismal person, and I think they put an extra shot in my coffee today. But no, what I’d say, and I’d say one of the things that I channel in this book and even in my last book, where the protagonist is a 60-year-old guy who has many problems that he deals with, is that I moved around a lot, and I was a new kid a lot, and I am, in fact, instinctively shy and I also–it takes me a long time to figure out what the social cues of my social world are.And–so I spent a lot of time as a young person eating lunch alone in the cafeteria–and like I said, in England, getting my ass kicked.
RB:Have you met a lot of people since you’ve been in Indianapolis?
MD:I have.I’ve met my entire department. [They’re] from Jersey or Staten Island or–and Indianapolis is a big city with a lot of industry, and so there’s plenty to do. My cultural life is really books, so that hasn’t changed much. I mean I miss my friends in New York. I miss stepping out of my building in New York and being in the center of this commercial–
RB:So do you walk a lot where you are?
RB:Do you live on campus?
MD:No, I’m not on campus.I’m about a mile and half away, and I don’t walk–
RB:Do you drive?
MD:I understand why people drive in a way that I didn’t in New York because in New York, I could walk to the same place every single day and it would never be (boring), and I was like, “Well now, I can walk to school with our new place” and it took me about two weeks to say, “I could just never see those–you know, I can’t go that route again.I’m just so bored by it.Unfortunately, it sounds like I’m really knocking Indiana, but it is–it’s not–
RB:Well, are there tree-lined streets? Are there interesting houses?
MD:Well, there are some, but, it’s not–I mean, again, it’s not like New York, but there’s–
RB:Are their other people walking?
MD:Mmm. Well, that’s one of the other problems.You know, there’s–it’s only 50% chance that there’s going to actually be a sidewalk. They don’t plough their streets during the winter.
RB:So actually, walking isn’t encouraged?
MD:No, but if you talk to a person from Indiana–Indianapolis–they’d say it’s one of the great walking cities–
RB:What about bicycling?
MD:Yeah, they’ve got some bike paths that are basically lines of paint in the middle of the street. I don’t understand how anyone would think that these qualify as a bike path, but–
RB:Tell me what the thing is you like best about Indianapolis?
MD:Well, I feel like–this is a hard question for me to answer because I feel like–and I think back when I started becoming sort of interested in being a novelist, you know–I’m reading Hamsun and Thomas Bernhard and Celine, and you know, having a sort of–
RB:Couldn’t you read Americans?
MD:Well, no.I had no interest in reading Americans.I didn’t know anything about American literature.My idea of being a writer was living in some dismal, 6-story, (walk-up), cold, heated apartment in east Berlin, and that’s what I wanted out of life, and when people ask me what I like about my life now, I feel like my response is so horrific. It sounds so–like I’ve sold out, but I love having a really nice house that I don’t have to pay much money for. My writing habits used to be–I mean, I was up at 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning, doing my work. I can’t get out of bed at 4 in the morning without my 4-year-old following me downstairs and–I love that! And so I feel like I’m this sort of man who’s now sort of like taking more pleasure in having, you know, chocolate eclairs with his son at a bakery than I am with having magnificent dreams of, writing essays about Schopenhauer and that kind of thing. But it is true. I mean, I have a very–I’m strangely happy in a lot of ways, which sounds–I feel very guilty about that.
RB:That’s for other people to deal with.
MD:Yeah, I know.
RB:Let me ask you–so you give it maybe a little more thought–let’s end our conversation for today by you telling me of where you think you might be in ten years.Have you even thought about the future?
MD:Well, mostly I think I hope I’m still alive.Actually, I’m a pretty bad hypochondriac, so–it’s funny but I–
RB:Hypochondria doesn’t kill you.
MD:That’s true!But in terms of planning where are you going to be in 10 years, it’s one of the things you think about. And the–I guess that I hope that I’ve written a bunch more books and still have a career and–
RB:Looking back on your life, did you–are you surprised by all the places you’ve been?
MD:Yeah, I guess.I’m actually surprised that I was in New York for so long because I think I’ve always sort of felt a little transient.Of course, New York has a feel that it’s full of transient people. But–yeah, I guess I am surprised. I used to–because I moved around a lot–I used to be really crippled with sort of feelings of nostalgia for the places that I’ve left, and I do grieve having left New York. I miss it a lot, but I don’t feel the same that I used to feel when I used to leave a place.It’s a big question, and I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s just that I’m with my wife and my son, and it just seems like wherever they are, that’s where my life is. But–
RB:Um–that wasn’t the last question.
RB:The last question is: what is the feeling that you get when you write? When you spend an hour, two hours, three hours writing?
MD:Well, usually, stories for me begin with a feeling of love for a character that I have. And it sounds kind of facile, but–and not maybe what I imagined my writing life would be like when I started out years ago–but I kind of started writing about this guy, Henry, and I wanted to, you know, sort of take care of him and see what happened to him. Again, I hate to talk about my work like this because I want to sound like an astounding, towering intellectual, but usually, after a good session of writing, you know, I feel a sense of love for the people that I’ve been spending my time with in my imagination.
RB:So when you finish a book, what is–what’s the feeling?
MD:Well, you know, there’s such a strange sort of long, sort of clerical process once a book is done that–it’s almost–
MD:You know, I have a really excellent editor–
MD:Jill Bialosky, right. The reason I say she’s excellent is mostly because I feel like she’s excellent for me because we share a certain kind of literary outlook, so she doesn’t ask for many changes, and when she does, they’re really excellent requests. So I wouldn’t say that that is difficult–editing–but you know, Norton really has a–I mean it’s an old-school exhaustive editorial process so they’re doing a lot of revisions, and they have a proper proofreader that only is a proofreader and is an expert in that, and so there’s just a lot of manuscript work that I’m doing and then, you know–that kind of thing. I think that that helps–
RB:You mean you get drawn into the marketing, publicizing initiatives?
RB:You don’t have time to grieve over the end of the story.
MD:Right, right. And I think that that helps in some ways. I think that maybe I feel a lot–I’d feel worse if I didn’t have this small task to keep me going. It’s like if you’re feeling depressed, doing the laundry kind of helps you feel a little better. But–so–yeah. I guess now–I mean the other thing, and this is something that is just so clear to me with my last novel is, and it’s very strange, but books really lead lives of their own. And there’s a certain point where it’s not yours anymore, and it’s off in the world, being hated or loved by whoever’s picking it up, and you’ve just got to kind of watch it. It’s like sending a kid off to college, I suppose. I don’t know.
RB:I’d expect that, as has been the case many times in my past that we may speak again.
MD:I’m up here all the time. Yeah. So–yeah. Definitely, I’d love to talk again.
Currently reading Haven’s Wake by Ladette Randolph (University of Nebraska Press)