I am going to assume that if your gaze has landed on this page, you know something about novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All).Thusly relieved of the task of introducing this fine writer I need only add that this is my third conversation with him, a skein that commenced in 1997 with his second published novel Plays Well With Others and has continued now with his recently published litter of novellas, Local Souls.
Chatting with Allan, a warm and courtly North Carolingian, has all the feel and ambience of the kind of thing one enjoys passing a leisurely afternoon on his front porch—which is to say his joyfulness in conversation matches that found in his prose.
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
RB: How are you?
AG: I’m pretty good. Being with readers is very reassuring. You forget that they still exist.
RB: This is early in the publication life of Local Souls; you assume that the readers that show up at events know your work?
AG: Many of them do, because they bring their copies and see they are dog-eared and with pieces post it attached—
RB: —coffee circles on the cover.
AG: I love that. And sun tan lotion makes me very happy.
RB: In the book collecting world that’s frowned upon. I guess in the 19th century the most valuable books were those that hasn’t had the plats split apart
AG: Exactly, that right. The uncut pages. Premiums on virgins. Virginity is highly overrated.
RB: I have vast multitudes of signed 1st editions and they are besmirched with all sorts of substances.
AG: I love that. People apologize. You must have an amazing collection by now.
RB: Well yeah, it’s pretty good.
AG: Isn’t it thrilling about Alice Munro winning the Nobel? I am so happy about that.
RB: Every laureate makes a speech but she is not going to the ceremony. I wonder if she will provide some kind of valedictory.
AG: Oh, is she not going? She has cancer, apparently. Such a shame. It happened maybe 2 years too late. Her lover is dead. I can’t believe it when writers say they’ve stopped writing. Philip Roth and Alice Munro.
RB: Well, we’ll see. Vonnegut announced he would stop writing and didn’t.
AG: I think it’s an impossible habit to break. Even if you know you are writing stuff that you know is not your very best. It’s an irresistible habit. I find not writing on tour excruciating.
RB: Early in Local Souls (the 1st novella) you say a writer is always writing.
AG: Yeah, exactly. You are always gathering and eavesdropping and spying. And formulating.
RB: Is that true of all writers? Or is that your definition of a writer?
AG: That’s what draws you to the occupation.
RB: An excuse to be nosey? (laughs)
AG: Absolutely. I saw a thing in Memphis —I saw 2 things is Memphis that were exciting to me fictionally. One was a bail bondsman whose company was “Free At Last Bail Bonds”. I don’t think Dr. King had that in mind when he said that.
RB: It was put to good use
AG: That’s right. The other thing was I saw a very well dressed 68-year-old society lady in patent leather pumps at an ATM machine being trained by a man who was about 70, in how to use her 1st ATM cash card. And it was clear that she was terrified. She was putting it in the wrong way. It’s a wonderful beginning of a story.
RB: What do you imagine her life was like? Did she know how to operate a vacuum cleaner?
AG: Oh, never. I don’t think she knew how to write a check to t he maid who ran the vacuum cleaner. But the man with her seemed to me to be the brother of her husband who just died. And she’d been one of these coddled impeded people. And was terrified—
RB: What do you mean by impeded?
AG: By making people helpless you foot bind them.
RB: Infantilize them?
RB: That reminds me, did you make up the word ‘sogged’ [to describe a rain soaked coat]?
AG: I did, yeah; it seemed the only word that I could think of.
RB: What’s a novella?
AG: It’s a work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.
AG: Ideally it’s a unit that you can pick up after dinner and finish by bedtime. That’s Peter Taylor’s definition.
RB: Kind of an ad hoc description—it depends on how long you stay up after dinner.
AG: I think it means that you leave out the secondary characters. It’s ideally suited for stories about obsessions—single-minded quests—“I love my child too much.” “I made a fatal mistake and spent my life trying to recapture what I gave away.”
RB: Jim Harrison is the only author I can think of who regularly writes novellas.
AG: Steven Millhauser does a lot—he’s really good.
RB: Andre Dubus just published a volume [Dirty Love] with a novella.
AG: My friend Lee Smith was a t a 5th grade school session as a visiting writer. And her 1st question came from a little girl, “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?”
Lee said it would have been too cruel to say,”No.” The girl was so game to ask the 1st question.
RB: I like the definition that says there is something wrong with a novella. Had the stories in Local Souls gone right they would have been novels?
AG: I think it’s a service to the reader to gut out the carbs and give you pure protein—like eating tuna fish out of a can at the kitchen sink.
RB: That sounds like one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for writing
AG: Oh does it, good?
Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)
RB: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
AG: That’s great. A lot of green scenery needs to go. I am not really interested in purple mountains majesty on the page. It aerates too much the interior obsessions and struggles of the writer. I want people to be completely in the reality of the character.
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus
RB: In the first story, you are the narrator/character.
AG: Oh absolutely. There is no question .Its an invitation to the reader to participate in the construction of the piece. And that piece was fascinating to write. It was an attempt to simulate a documentary by gathering the clues; you are with him as he makes it all up out of bare- boned reality. I am very interested in Jim Thomson. He’s an underestimated crime writer and really a great writer in his best book. The Killer Inside Me is a terrifying —a beautiful book. And in a way the whodunit still has tremendous vitality as a pattern for how me move through fiction. A crime is created on the first page and resolved on the last page.
RB: I really enjoy crime stories. There is the tendency of crime writers to create series —which lost their vitality more or less quickly. And by the way, in Elmore Leonard, the crime is not important to his stories.
AG: In a way the crime is the fillip, the sorry excuse— so you can hear those guys who are so stupid and so smart at the same time, talk. It’s so thrilling to see on the page.Since Flannery O’Connor he has best ear in American fiction—maybe with Grace Paley. I love reading that dialogue.
RB: And Leonard makes it easy for screen adaptation—the dialogue doesn’t need to be tampered with. Getting back to ‘sogged’ when I went back to reread your stories I was struck by the wonderful solecisms.
AG: Shakespeare was always turning nouns into verbs.
RB: That would be the beauty of the English language.
AG: Exactly, that’s how it happens —the regeneration, the resurrection. There are instances where there is no legal verb. In White People I have an angel falling out of the sky on to green grass. And I used the word ‘twunk’, I had a dream in which an angel fell and that was exactly the sound. I think what we are trying to do as writers, in a way, is develop an idiomatic language that’s separate from conventional Strunk & White language. That’s a kind of emotional short hand for the characters and should vary from piece to piece but it takes a while for the reader to learn this news language. But once they have got it they are that much closer to the center of the character.
RB: Is there a conscious effort?
AG: In the heat of the moment you develop—
RB: For the reader?
AG: It shouldn’t be too conscious. It shouldn’t be like reading Finnegan’s Wake. You have to meet people half way.
RB: I didn’t catch some of this on my first reading. What’s mind set when you are reading something for the 2nd time?
AG: You see the construction much more consciously. I am always doing battle with copy editors —you know, in Saints Have Mothers, the self reported IQ of Jean Mulray keeps rising by 22 points by the end. The copyeditors were having an orgasm having caught me in this mistake. I told them there may be accidents in my work but there are no mistakes. I really meant that. I had to right a whole new chapter to justify myself to this anonymous lady.
RB: You could have simply pointed out that this was a novel, a fiction.
AG: I tried to do that but those distinctions are breaking down. Americans are so fact loving as a people that most of the questions you get at readings are, “This is pretty much what happened, right?” No, this is not. The very phrase ‘fiction’ is based on the word ‘fashioned’ meaning forged or created, hand made. The question is what of the inventions that you have put in this book, is the craziest and the most successful to you? That would be the question I ‘d like asked. I have handy example, which for me was mind-boggling. In Decoy, I needed a disease—this is what I do to my poor characters. Drowning, mortification of the flesh is not enough. N-n-n-n-n-no, they have to have a fated inherited disease. So I made up a disease. Exercising all rights of fiction. The disease was patrilineal —you got it form your dad, from male to male. It’s a heart disease that retains all the cholesterol you have ever eaten, in your body. It turns you into a crystal palace of cholesterol. And I had a great Gothic Edgar Alan Poe time imagining this. I actually had dates when the body began to be impeded—about 30-35. Then dead, conventionally by 50-51, something like that. I have a next-door neighbor who is a retired famous cardiologist. He is entering his 80’s. He is so famous he did a triple by pass on the Sultan of Brunei. When he came to Duke University, he brought his wives, his children his rugs and his security force. And he rented the university hotel. The rugs were stacked so high that you had to crawl into the rooms (that’s his wealth). It’s like traveling with Metropolitan Museum. And they have to use them to make them better. Anyway, —
AG: Moving right along—you see, you thought I lost the thread. You thought I had, but n-o-o-o-o I hadn’t.
RB: No, I was thinking there’s a story.
AG: Exactly. So I decided I have the world’s leading cardiologist living next door, idled. I take advantage of his expertise and humor him and build bridges as father used to say, by asking him if such a thing could be possible. So went over with my little note pad and laid out this fictitious disease. It took me about 10 minutes to lay out all the specs of the disease. So I asked is such a thing possible. And he said is such a thing possible along side familial chloresterolemia? And I said, “What’s familial chloresterolemia?” “The disease you just described for the last 10 minutes.” To the day, I had described a disease that preexisted me. I never read about it. Or known anyone who had it. I made it up. Its real.
RB: But rare.
AG: It’s rare, thank god for the poor sufferers. But even the name chloresterolemia, to put the Latin up front like that—I couldn’t have done better in my wildest dreams. So when people say, “This story is real, you read in a newspaper, right? Right! Wrong! The mystical stuff is the stuff that you invent most fancifully and that somehow comes to validate you and the fiction.
RB: I hear from writers that readers seem to have an expectation that everything is factual.
AG: Oh god, its tedious. I think it’s a great age for non-fiction but I also think it’s a great age for fiction. But in the horserace —
RB: May be not a great age for reading.
AG: Its not. I have seen in the —I read in Seattle 12 years ago, I had 120 people. I read in Seattle, that if anything has gotten more praise than the last book, 11 people turn up. I flew 3000 miles to Seattle, which is supposed to be one of the great book towns —
RB: At Elliot Bay?
AG: At Elliot Bay.
RB: What explains that?
AG: I don’t know but I see that the promise of the book has receded. For instance, I have never not been on All Things Considered. For every book I have written since ’89. They don’t really do books anymore. Only books about the burning of the Koran. Or something sensational.
RB: Tiger mothers?
AG: Yeah, exactly. And Terry Gross is retired. So now we have to do things like writing essays for the Times and the Wall St Journal.
RB: Like “On Collecting”[written for the NY Times].
AG: Like that and inventing diseases and whatever else, in order to see your name in the paper. It’s changed. Unfortunately it’s too late for me to retool. All I ever wanted to do was write a great book. And I’m not changing.
RB: Are you going take in boarders or something?
AG: I guess so. Or become a callboy. Except nobody called—I hate when that happens.
RB: We have it wrong. Its not about the decline of reading its about the decline of education.
AG: Well, it’s true.
RB: As long as the emphasis radically shifts from creating the whole person and the humanities to vocational guidance and training what is in it for students to read?
AG: It’s great to put it in that context. That’s what the Republican majority is doing by cutting education
RB: Everyone is doing it—the great majority of policy makers see education as a career strategy, there is no learning for learning’s sake. Nicholson Baker wrote in Harpers that Algebra shouldn’t be required as part of the Core. Which is considered a gateway course (but mostly and obstacle) to college. How much do you use Algebra in your life?
AG: I couldn’t use it. That’s a great point. Talk about the dumbing down of America as something in the future—that happened decades ago and we are reaping the benefit. Its scary it really is. And the absolute passivity of whatever comes down it’s a scary time. Those 40 representatives, so-called, could have just pushed right on into full coup. That was the idea. Its spooky and we are entranced and narcotized with our gizmos and I am as guilty as the next person. I never had an IPhone until I went on this tour and now I feel like I have a little white kitten upstairs and I leave milk and cookies for it in a shoe box by the bed. That’s my favorite little thing.
RB: I just realized I hate football. My son plays for his high school.
AG: Oh god.
RB: And I can’t stop watching it because I have been watching it since childhood. But I hate it.
AG: Its horrible. It’s gladiatorial. Its white people in the stands watching under cashmere blankets watching the underclass kill each other. Its bear baiting, is what it is.
RB: Daniel Woodrell in The Bayou Trilogy has a funny take on college football —essentially characterizing the games as between Alabama’s felons and Florida States’ criminals.
AG: I was just in Oxford, Mississippi before the LSU game. LSU fans are notorious for coming with broken coca cola bottles and throwing them into the stands. People are afraid to go out on the street. The marauding hordes have arrived.
RB: Wow, sounds like English soccer fans.
AG: The thugs. Its inevitable that they imitate on the street what they see on the field.
RB: Wasn’t there some incident where an opposing fan chopped down a tree on the Auburn Campus?
AG: That was horrible.
RB: You wrote somewhere you liked to find humor in the most horrible circumstances
AG: Yeah. I want to write the funniest books possible about the worst things that can happen.
RB: Why is that?
AG: There’s where the energy is and redemption is and that’s where the truth is. We are all in for a terrible row of disasters. The flood that I described in Decoy is predicated on flood that took out 30% of the houses in my hometown overnight. 17 feet of water hit the town. Essentially the Atlantic Ocean came 150 miles inland in 1999. It preceded Katrina—by the time Katrina hit everybody in my town had been there and done that. They will never get back into their houses. We just move on.
RB: I just read Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s The Tilted World. Its about the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. And in the last chapter one of the characters talks about what he will tell his children and mentions that this greatest of natural disasters was very much ignored around the country and would have been dealt with differently had it taken place in New England.
RB: What struck me living through this real flood—I was not living in the town at the time. My brother got on the phone and said, ”Come now.” And I said, “Well I have a dentist appointment.” “Cancel. Come now.” [He] Being a man of few words, I got in the car and went. And instances of such heroism from the least likely people. And like Doc in the novella [Decoy], the person who seems the most set up and most revered can bear anything but to lose what he’s hand made. He can’t sacrifice his art. And its sort of way of subjecting your art work to difficulty. It has to float—I mean, you carve a decoy so it can float away on a flood. And it floats away; a highly successful and you’re devastated because you have lost your beauty—
RB: Do you know Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell?
AG: I know her name but I don’t know the book.
RB: She chose 6 historic natural disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Katrina and pointed out that in those calamities, that people banded together and formed communities of aid and comfort.
AG: Think about 9/11—people carrying wheelchair victims 90 floors down the stairs. We forget that. Those instances of beauty and of community inspire me. Its what I have instead of god. Community is real, god is fiction. It’s thrilling to see how imaginative people can be. I lived through a lot of hurricanes growing up in North Carolina. One of the most recent, Fran, took out all of the electricity for 8 or 9 days. Which in and of itself is a huge cataclysm for most of us. But I had a gas range and a lot of coffee, which I had ground up in advance, very cleverly.
RB: You could have used a hammer.
AG: That takes a long time—like a mortar and pestle. I had filled the bathtub, so I had a lot of water. And I made coffee for my neighbors. I am a total coffee addict. And I learned when they need their coffee and what they took in their coffee. And I have never had such gratitude. It was like doing a sexual favor for old lady next door.
RB: That’s pretty thoughtful. Do you use a burr grinder or a blade [grinder]? Or the old hand burr grinder?
AG: Exactly. It was so simple top do and so powerful. And I felt closer to the people and we also did the thing that we did in Decoy of pooling all our frozen food, delicacies, and putting them in a giant pot. It was one the best things I have eaten I my life. Sitting outside behind a darkened house-
RB: A peasant meal.
AG: Right, whatever you have, squirrel, okra, weeds, what the hell—it was thrilling
RB: People get great pleasure from doing acts of kindness.
AG: I love the most basic definition —which kin and kindness are from the same root. So to the extent that you are kind to somebody you are demonstrating how like them you are. And that lines up the pheromones like nothing else in the world—to know that you are part of a huge tribe.
RB: That’s what makes the Dalai Llama so attractive —preaching kindness.
AG: Absolutely. It’s a profound concept. And it’s difficult to practice. I swear this is my mantra, my daily activity, to try to make everybody you contact in a course of a day, incrementally better about themselves for having seen you. It’s incredible—
RB: A lesson often learned later in life.
AG: It does come later. The slash and burn days are gone, yeah.
Waiter tries to take our stuff—we humorously protest.
RB: We were somewhere
AG: —before they took our food away. We were talking about kindness
RB: There is that old saw about having two lives, one is the life you learn with and one is the life you live what you have learned.
AG: I am 66. I love this age. I love it.
RB: I am older than you. So remember that.
AG: All right sir, I can take lessons. Can I sit in your lap and get counsel, Santa?
RB: How often do you run into people that you don’t know?
AG: Not all the time. I live in a village of 6 thousand and when I walk around town the bookstore has my books in the window. It’s a Jimmy Stewart kind of reality.
RB: Is there a street named for you?
AG: Not yet.
Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)
RB: Anything that commemorates your existence?
AG: Yes, my hometown library has a life size portrait of me. I should say that with shame—its actually quite a good painting apart from its likeness to me.
RB: And the bronze statue?
AG: That comes later. I don’t care about post humus; I want it now, baby. You know that Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again. The reason he has to say that is because he used every secret about Ashville in his trashy book. He was so mean to the people who helped him. I work from an opposite principle—kin and kindness have their rewards. Not just on the page but in reality and community.
RB: Did you think this was what you were going to when you were a young pup in NYC?
AG: I though I was going to be a painter until I was inducted into the US Navy.
RB: I meant did you think you were going to return to rustic North Carolina?
AG: I didn’t think that until the AIDS pandemic. Until I lost 30 of the most adorable people that I had known. You reach a point where you have to start over. You are lucky of you can start over—if you are one of the survivors who can say I will remember all these people and I will take these memories into my new friends. But I couldn’t do it on the same streets where all this terrible stuff had happened.
RB: And now when you are in New York?
AG: I enjoy it. I love it. I feel very quickened by it. It sis much more congested and expensive, needless to say. But every block has associations for me. There is a kind of default setting. I think we all have. The people who go back to Ireland to die, and they haven’t seen it in 60 years. The minute they get to the dock they are like, ”Hah! Bye bye.” For me the course of least resistance was to know all the sounds and smells of this particular landscape. And it’s been extremely consoling. I have a garden and old house that I fixed up. I love it. I love being there. And I learn a lot. Its almost the narrative inspiration is permeable. You get through the skin.
RB: Well, North Carolina has a lot of writers living there
AG: Well, in my little town it could be 30 %. When I moved there 21 years ago it was me and the hardware store. I like living where I do and then going from there. The book is being translated into a lot of languages. I’ll go to countries, each in turn—there is no way like getting to know a country like having a book in their language. Its exciting dealing with translators and the questions that they ask.
RB: Any non-traditional languages?
AG: Mostly French, German, And Italian. I have things in Japanese. I just love to look at the text though I have no idea what I am seeing. The questions that come are fascinating. Word choices and—
RB: You’ll get questions about ‘sogged’.
AG: I’m ready. I am prepared to defend it in any language. It’s an underpaid and under appreciated occupation. Astonishing artistry.
Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)
Note to you: I am suspending my customary practice of publishing an interview in totality. In this case my conversation with Allan Gurganus was about 90 minutes in duration (which flew by as we were engaged in it) and I fear that a complete transcript would tax all but the most devoted readers. Thus, you can, if you made it this far, in the fullness of time, look forward to a Part II.
Currently reading The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig
by Stefan Zweig translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press)