Tag Archives: Thomas Waller

The Four Most Beautiful Words

10 Nov

The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so. Gore Vidal

A young Gore Vidal

A young Gore Vidal

Noticing that there was much consternation and despair afoot in the land before,during, and after the midterm elections, I sought refuge in a review of my long que of films at Netflix. And to my great anticipated pleasure I came across the 2013 documentary The United States of Amnesia, which is an engrossing and concise documentary on the life and times of the inimitable novelist /screenwriter /playwright/truth-teller Gore Vidal (who passed in 2012).

Australian director Nicholas Wrathall’s survey of Vidal’s rich and eventful life is a useful survey of one of the last American literary lions. Vidal’s upper crust genealogy provides some clues especially since he makes quite much of it throughout his life, pointing out the access it had given him to the wealthy and powerful. His grandfather was was Thomas Pryor Gore, a US Senator from Oklahoma (reportedly the only senator from that oil rich state to die poor) who because he was blind brought his grandson to the floor of the Senate. The preternaturally attentive young Vidal (he changed his name from Eugene Louis so he could be a Gore) no doubt gained a rich education from that experience.

Vidal wrote over twenty novels, over a dozen screenplays (Ben Hur) and countless book reviews and essays for the major journals of his time. But it is his sure-handed “Narratives of Empire”, a seven-book series ( Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C.,The Golden Age ) though nominally fiction which presented a vivid and accurate sense of American history (borrowing from primary sources)providing a clearer and more accurate insight into the American political system and its cast than put forth in public school history courses.Among others, Harold Bloom extolled these historical novels, “Vidal’s imagination of American politics . . . is so powerful as to compel awe.” Thus along with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History a more accurate vision of American reality and mythology is accessible

Vidal’s essay anthologyUnited States: Essays 1952–1992 won the National Book Award in 1993 and gives ample example of his unblinking view of the degraded state of the American Republic.Another collection followedThe Last Empire: essays 1992–2000 capped off with the Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia entitled as such because Vidal understood Americans failure to understand recall their own history.

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.Gore Vidal

The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return. Gore Vidal

One associate has described Vidal as a “nasty, witty, shrewd, contemptible fellow,” and by other acquaintances viewed him as as a warm, personable, caring gentleman,‚both sides of which are on display in an earlier biographical documentary, Education of Gore Vidal (2003). What is apparent after dipping into this and other accounts, Vidal is that he occupies a significant space in the mid century and beyond american culture and no matter one’s politics, Vidal’s pronouncements and charisma was wholly engaging.

We should stop going around babbling about how we’re the greatest democracy on earth, when we’re not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic. Gore Vidal

Time Magazine (Mar 5 1976)

Time Magazine (Mar 5 1976)

The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity – much less dissent. Gore vidal

Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either. Gore Vidal

An aged Gore Vidal

An aged Gore Vidal

Here’s a conversation Gore Vidal had with his literary executor Jay Parini

Reading and reviewing Gore Vidal’s scrutiny of American history up to its imperial present one wonders what it might take to wake up the great number of Americans who are being denied the fruits of what is promised in the founding documents of the Republic. Clear sighted commentators from Noam Chomskyand Tom Englehardt to Naomi Klein and Thomas Frank are marginalized by Murdoch’s howling, flying monkeys and the like.And media sentinels (like Media Matters) waste their time listing the lies and distortions of Fox and the Koch funded Super Pacs to the minority of Americans who already recognize the political shell game.

So what has to happen? The post WWII generation has blown it and maybe the following generation has also. My teenage son’s peers, whose overwhelmingly ambitions are careers in finance, will be disappointed when they discover the reality of that world when its clear that only a very few prosper. Will that disappointment lead to real change? To quote the great Thomas Waller, “One never know, do one?”

Currently reading The Last Empire by Gore Vidal (Knopf)

Chatting with William Giraldi

9 Feb

William Giraldi copyright 2012 Robert Birnbaum

You have probably never heard of debut novelist and Boston University mentor William Giraldi (one of the things this bulletin aims to correct).One would hope that the effusive praise from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles should have raised his visibility in the cloistered, marginal world of literary fiction.But to quote the great Thomas Waller, “One never know, do one?”

“Busy Monsters” may be the best literary present you could bring to a brainy guy’s bachelor party. It boasts lots of gonzo adventure, wacky sex and an endorsement by Harold Bloom that’s so pompous I can’t tell if it’s part of the joke. No matter: William Giraldi’s cocky first novel is a romance for real men — real nerdy men willing to fight for a woman’s heart. Here’s a book to help you celebrate “the stimulating incipience of romance, the excitement of possibility, of being rescued from the abscess of lonesomeness and having someone to share your hydrogen with.” Got that?

Its possible that the weighty blurb by Harold Bloom that Charles quotes also has some raises Giraldi fame quotient—who knows how these things work? For my part, based on the ebullient and energetic sensibility in evidence in Busy Monsters, I felt reasonably certain William Giraldi and I would have a satisfying conversation— one that ranged far and wide, touching on his biography, growing up in New Jersey,his lack of skill in carpentry, the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins(which he can recite with passion, off the cuff), Harold Bloom,Florence Ballard and so on and so forth:

RB: You’re going to have to give me some biographical details here, because I’m sure people are going to want know some things about you. So, if I was writing like a dust jacket biography, I would say, “William Giraldi’s read all thirty of Harold Bloom’s books and… Go ahead…”

WG: Well, you hit it on the nose as soon as I walked in. I was raised Catholic in New Jersey by my grandmother, my father had all three of his kids, my brother, my sister and myself to raise after my mother abandoned our family, we were all pretty young when it happened so . . .

RB: You wrote somewhere that that was okay?

WG: I wrote somewhere that I’m not traumatized by that, I had a great childhood,

RB: You’re the only one.

WG: [laughs] I had a great childhood, I remember it fondly. You know who was insistent that I have not had a great childhood, and that I carry this around with me like an axe in my back? All the shrinks that I’ve seen over the years—they’re the ones trying to tell me that I’ve got all these problems but—

RB: Sensitive, aren’t they?

WG: So sensitive, it’s true. So I was raised in central NJ by my grandparents and my dad and working class—

RB: Give me an idea of who was president at the time.

WG: Who was president at the time? Reagan. I remember that, I remember Reagan on the news. I remember when the space shuttle blew up. I was a small child when that happened but I remember Reagan on the news talking about that. It was the Challenger. Working class family, my dad’s a carpenter, very working class town.

RB: Was your dad a Republican?

WG: No, my dad—

RB: He didn’t get hoodwinked by that “Morning in America” stuff?

WG: No. My dad didn’t really know what he was politically. He was just a guy who worked in the sun for twelve hours a day and was a guy who was preoccupied with his kids and I don’t think he would’ve known if he was a Democrat or Republican. You know, he wasn’t politically conscious. Stendhal’s best advice he could give to a novelist was not to be political in fiction, to leave politics aside, and so my father was like that in life. He didn’t know much about it.

RB: Was he strapped for cash?

WG: He was for a long time. In fact that’s one of the most prominent memories I have as a child: my dad suffering to pay the mortgage. Because when my mother left the family she demanded half of my father’s assets. And my father didn’t want to sell our family home. He wanted us to be raised in the home that we were accustomed to, so he took out an extra mortgage, and at the time our house was worth $300,000 and this was a large house, my father had worked and worked and worked and built up this large house in the best part of town—it was brand new.

RB: What town in New Jersey?

WG: I grew up in a town called Manville. But we moved right across the border to a more affluent town called Hillsborough. It was right across the border, you could walk from one town to the other, and it was right after we moved in that house that my mother left the family. Now, she left the family because, as we found out years later, she had met somebody else, a millionaire banker in New York City. And no one had ever found out how she was able to do this because she was a small town girl who had me her senior year of high school, she never spent a day—

RB: Do you want to talk about this because I see a memoir—

WG: Do you? I’ve written personal essays about it actually. I’ve written some about it. But a book? No.

RB: The reason I’m asking about your father and his politics and whether or not he had trouble making it financially is because it strikes me that the people who are having trouble are the ones who should be paying attention.

WG: That’s true. I know, and it’s a real—I don’t know if it’s a paradox or not, but it’s certainly something that shouldn’t be. I know from my dad—he was so preoccupied with waking up in the morning and, I mean, my father wasn’t a TV watcher, he didn’t watch the news, he wasn’t a paper reader, and I remember him just being incredibly stressed and incredibly busy. Just trying to get extra hours at work, and making sure we were fed, and making sure we were clothed. I mean this was a guy who really didn’t have the time or the leisure to be politically active. And I’ll tell you, none of this would have happened, my father would have been wealthy if it hadn’t been for the alimony that my mother demanded and that large chunk of cash that she filched from him.

RB: Your mother —you said she deserted your family for another guy, but apparently no one knew about it at the time—

WG: No.

RB: Because she collected alimony. Under what pretense?

WG: Her claim was that my father was—

RB: Cruel?

WG: No…

RB: Incompatible?

WG: Well, she claimed he was incompatible, yes, and she claimed that he restricted her options in the world, that he was possessive, that he was jealous, and of course my father denied all of that.

RB: That doesn’t even sound like grounds for divorce.

WG: No, but it’s what she wanted. She wanted to be out of the marriage because, of course, well, we didn’t find out until years and years later that she met somebody else. But what she had claimed at the time was that my father was too strict, too restrictive of her freedoms. And she wanted to have her own life, she wanted to work, she wanted to—the truth was she didn’t want to be a mother and she didn’t want to be a wife. She wanted to be with this new man in Manhattan, so, we didn’t find that out until a long time after.

RB: And I’ve got to ask, did this—this must’ve embittered your father?

WG: Indeed it did. I remember that vividly. I remember one day, he and I were standing outside on our front walkway, and we were fighting, I was about eleven years old and I think we were arguing about my not cutting the grass, and he had come home and the grass wasn’t cut and he had to do it after twelve hours of work. And the conversation somehow turned to my mother, and I remember I said to him, I said, “You know, maybe she left us because of you. Maybe it was you.” And I remember he looked at me and said, “All I ever did was love your mother. She left because she didn’t love us.” And I’ve never forgotten that. I didn’t believe it at the time. It took many, many years for me to understand that that was true. But you are right, he was extremely bitter.

RB: But that’s amazing—some fathers would’ve just hit you. After twelve hours, having to come home and—some people would’ve just lashed out.

WG: Yes, he had his moments of lashing out, he certainly did. He wasn’t abusive in any way, he wasn’t physical, but he certainly—I can remember him dragging me from one end of the kitchen—when I was a teenage—I can remember him dragging me by the earring, from one end of the kitchen to the other, saying, “You will do these dishes.” You know? So, he suffered a lot. I remember that well. I can remember lying in bed at night, feeling his anxiety. And of course, my grandmother, Catholic warrior extraordinaire, really implanted that in us.

RB: This was your paternal grandmother?

WG: That’s right.

RB: And from that, you decided to be a writer. [laughs]

WG: [laughs] Yeah, what else was I gonna do with all that?

RB: So, what, you grew up in central New Jersey, and despite what you’ve said so far, had a relatively normal life.

WG: Yes, I mean—

RB: Small town New Jersey life, you had a family around you, and a house, and siblings—

WG: And friends.

RB: You went to public school?

WG: I went to Catholic school.

RB: All the way through?

WG: I went to Catholic school through 8th grade, and then when we moved over the town border, then I went to the public high school.

RB: The damage had already been done.

WG: The damage had already been done, absolutely. It was a very strict Catholic school, and a very arduous one. The curriculum was arduous. I can remember the nuns reading in Latin and reading in Greek and my not understanding any of it and they’re trying to teach us that and it not registering with me at all. But I remember the rhythms of that. I can remember a nun named Sister Dorianne reading the New Testament in the original Greek and I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I can remember the rhythms of it and how beautiful it sounded and I can remember attending some masses in Latin, and just being overwhelmed, astonished, astounded by the rhythms and sounds. That might have been the genesis of my love for verse. I spent a good deal of my college years, in graduate school especially, studying poetry, the Romantics in particular, and also Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I never understood where that came from, because I’m not a poet, but I cherish it and study it and it means the world to me. And perhaps those early days of that, of hearing the mass in Latin and hearing the gospels in Greek, maybe that did something, started something for me, because I’ll tell you, Robert, I never chose to be a writer. This was not the plan.

RB: So you went to high school. Were you on the football team?

WG: No way.

RB: Were you on the basketball team?

WG: No way.

RB: No team.

WG: No way.

RB: You were a degenerate, bohemian type? Instead, you paid attention to poetry in high school?

WG: I began writing poetry in high school, yes, what I thought of as poetry. Or I thought of it at the time as song lyrics. I remember hearing music in my head and wanting to write lyrics to that music. I was very influenced by Jim Morrison, which was incredible, because this was the late 80’s, and why would a teenage boy in the late 80’s discover Jim Morrison?

RB: Or how?

WG: Or how. I don’t know how. But I remember listening to his music and picking up a biography of Morrison and reading it all night, being overwhelmed by it. And I remember picking up some collections of—

RB: Was the [Oliver]Stone movie out yet?

WG: No, it wasn’t. No, because I remember seeing that when I was older, and that Val Kilmer performance was just unforgettable. It’s a shame what happened to him.

RB: It’s hard to remember some of these guys, what their good roles were. He wasn’t bad in that movie Thunder Heart. And he wasn’t bad in Heat.

WG: Yes, he was great in Heat, small role.

RB: Right, well everybody after Pacino—

WG: Everybody after Pacino and DeNiro, right.

RB: There’s a movie where, it has a lot to do with drugs and stuff, takes place in Hollywood . . .

WG: Yes, it’s called Wonderland.

RB: But he had stuff—he must’ve done stuff way before that that I remember him doing well, you’re right—because there was sort of a downhill slide there.

WG: He was the youngest student ever accepted to Julliard.

RB: What age?

WG: I think he was fifteen or sixteen years old when he was accepted to Julliard, the youngest student ever. I don’t know if that’s changed, but he’s really followed a kind of Brando-like path if you’ve seen photos of him lately. He’s really large and scruffy and he seems to have shun the acting world the same way Brando did. Or at least shun the showbiz aspect of it. There was no one like him for a while. He was really great.

RB: Speaking of which, this triggered my—I may have weird neuro things that happen, bear with me— How would you know who Florence Ballard was?

WG: Well, I remember reading something about Florence Ballard. I hadn’t known who she was, prior to reading an article somewhere in some book, or magazine, or newspaper. I must’ve been in college. And it was an essay or article about her tragic life. It really speared me because I was suffering from a hideous melancholy at the time, and I remember coming across this article and remembering her that way, because she suffered so much. Alcoholic, and severe depression, and death, and you know, the truth is that I originally wanted that person in Busy Monsters to be Diana Ross, but my editor said, “There is no way we’re making that Diana Ross. We’re not getting sued here. You’d better make it somebody else.” And I thought well, maybe Florence Ballard is more fitting.

RB: What would be libel? What reference to Florence Ballard was libel?

WG: Well, Florence Ballard was originally Diana Ross, and Romp says that—Romp, the character in the book—says that he copulated with Diana Ross in the 70’s, and my editor is super vigilant.

RB: Yeah, right, people could sue you for that.

WG: Yes, and he just didn’t want even to go there, and then it occurred to me afterwards, and we talked about making it Florence Ballard, and I said, Yeah, you know that might work better actually because she had such as tragic life and that’s really where Charlie’s life is going if he doesn’t get Gillian back. He’s gonna turn into a Florence Ballard.

RB: So, you know, we talked off camera, or off microphone as you were fondling your book, and appreciating its beauty and splendor, but you mentioned that it was seven years. Now, it’s only a few hundred pages, why did it take you seven years? [laughs]

WG: Great question. I wish I had a succinct answer for that. Well, it took me five years to write, and two years to revise. And so, I lived with this guy for seven whole years, and he climbed inside of me, and took me over, and I’m glad to be done with him. I felt really possessed by him. I couldn’t make it any sooner than that. I couldn’t make it any quicker than that. The voice was so—

RB: Is that you? Is that your voice?

WG: It’s not the voice that I speak in, and it’s not the voice that I write in—[pauses, hears music in background] Wanda Jackson and Jack White. Hear this song? This is a Jack White produced Wanda Jackson album.

RB: They broke up, didn’t they?

WG: The White Stripes? Oh God, I’m gonna cry, don’t make me cry.

RB: It’s okay. Men can cry.

WG: I can’t even think about it. But this is Wanda Jackson “Thunder on the Mountain” produced by Jack White.

RB: See, this is your voice then, because you’re easily distracted.

WG: True.

RB: And you, I suspect, would do well on Jeopardy.

WG: Oh Lord, I mean, my wife says that, but usually she’s just flattering me. She wants me to—

RB: Well I don’t think that. Nonetheless, as an example, Jim Shepard says that when Jeopardy’s on, his kids come in and ask him to come in the room because he is a reservoir of varied, odd facts. And certainly in the references that go on, in the novel, you make all sorts of references to, again—I don’t think many people who read this will know Florence Ballard or Wilkie Collins, or any number of other things. This is the accumulation of your—

WG: Of twenty five years of reading.

RB: And nerve endings randomly firing.

WG: Yes, I like that. The accumulation of nerve endings firing. I think that’s true, and I think that—I mean, for the past twenty five years, reading has been the most important thing in my life, and in many ways I put twenty five years of reading into this book, and the reading was all kinds of reading, not just novels, and not just poetry, but philosophy and history and pop culture and sociology and psychology. And this character, this narrator gave me the chance to use all of that, to put it all to narrative effect, and it’s one of the things that the reviewers are commenting on. I was so pleased to get such a strong review from Ron Charles in today’s Washington Post.

RB: We’ll go back to him in a moment.

WG: What was I saying before the Wanda Jackson came on? It’s not my voice. I think there’s a lot of me in Charlie, but, the way he moves through the world is not the way I move through the world.

RB: Okay, well maybe you can use a different word. Not voice, but there’s a sensibility that’s reflected there. I’m glad you mentioned it because you know, I don’t know about frequently, but there are times when I wonder whether or not it’s possible to read too much.

WG: What do you mean by that?

RB: I’m not sure, but I think that, you know, I think that it’s possible, or I worry that it’s possible that if you spent your life in these alternative worlds that are created by words on a page you lose touch with the real world. And/or you refract all the stuff you see in the so-called real world in unreal ways, you know?

WG: I suppose that’s entirely possible. I want to recite something for you:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

RB: And tell me who that was.

WG: That’s one of the “Terrible Sonnets” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

RB: Why do you call it terrible? Is it entitled “terrible”?

WG: Yes. This one is called “No worst there is none,” and he has a whole series of sonnets that are called “The Terrible Sonnets” because he wrote them during a very dark night of the soul. He was living in Dublin, teaching at a college there and it was miserable. He had abandoned his family in England, and he had betrayed them by his apostasy, leaving Anglicanism for the Roman Catholic Church, and he had felt such deep pangs of grief and regret and sorrow and guilt for that apostasy and for leaving his family in England, for Ireland, and feeling terribly depressed, and battling with God during these horrible, wretched Ireland winters. But those poems, and Hopkins in general—I wanted to recite that for you because he informs the way I see the world. His language, which you call sensibility, I think I would call vision—it enhances the way that I see the world and it enhances the way I interact with the world, because those poems, they’re so physical, they have such sound, what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm,” his meter. They have such a palpable presence for me, I can almost taste and smell them. I think, in response to what you said, the only time I felt that is when I spent too many hours inside reading and not enough time outside living. So I’ve definitely felt that. But I know that all the hours I’ve spent reading over the years, that it really enhanced my existence in the world, really enhanced my interaction with the world, and I don’t read just for pleasure, and I don’t read just for wisdom, and I certainly don’t read for an escape. I read for some hint of how better to interact with the word. I said somewhere recently that I read because I wanted to be a better father, a better husband, a better writer and teacher.

RB: I think you could just say I wanted to be better.

WG: Exactly. There’s another Hopkins poem that begins:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

WG: That’s his plea to Christ against his feelings of despair, against suicide, and despair for Hopkins meant a Catholic doctrinal despair, the sin of turning away from God, which is the sin that Marlowe’s Faust is ultimately damned for. And I can remember being as depressed as Hopkins and reading that and it actually giving me some semblance of hope.

Despair is impossible, self-destruction is impossible, I will go on. That famous Beckett line: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. So I love what you say about reading contaminating our way in the world because I think that’s certainly true and I definitely don’t believe that reading can save civilization. You mentioned Harold Bloom earlier, and I agree with Bloom that literature is not a social corrective. It’s not going to save us as a civilization.

RB: You mentioned Ron Charles before, and he mentioned Harold Bloom’s endorsement of your book: “William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is rammed with life. A kind of elegiac intensity, remarkable for so young a man, pervades its harmonies”. What does that mean?

WG: [laughs] Mr. Charles wasn’t sure that he knew either.

RB: He was not as kind as I just was.

WG: Well, rammed with life—Charles is so vital, and despite all of his loathing, he is a guy who’s filled with life, and the book has got so many odd—what I like to think of as so many lively characters—a kind of elegiac intensity, you know—there’s this very elegiac insistence and almost unstoppable rhythm to the way this guy thinks and speaks. Does it have harmonies? Does that intensity convey the book’s harmonies? Well, I like to think of harmonies as—

RB: You don’t have to justify that.

WG: Well, I tried to make sense of Bloom’s very generous endorsement myself. He means the harmonies are the manner in which the book hangs together.

RB: He’s just paying you back for being the only person in the word who’s read all his books.

WG: No, that’s not true.

RB: You think there’s more than one person who’s read all his books?

WG: God yes.

RB: Is there a Harold Bloom Society?

WG: You know there’s going to be. He’s going to go down, despite all of the controversy surrounding his ideas, he’s going to go down as one of the most important literary critics ever. That isn’t up for debate. The impact he’s had on literary criticism is just immeasurable. The impact he’s had on the reading culture is just immeasurable. And that impact, true, is based partly upon his divisiveness.

RB: I just have to say, I’ve gotten through my reading life not having read one of his books. Or one of his essays, or maybe anything by him. On the other hand, I’ve also read little or no John Updike. And there’s a long list of things I haven’t read.

WG: Sure, I as well.

RB: And there are lots of things I have read. Have you read Nelson Algren?

WG: I admire Algren. I especially like The Man With the Golden Arm, and he’s got a wonderful story collection about Texas, also a beautiful book on writing. You know, Ernest Hemingway praised Algren right through the roof. Hemingway said that Algren was the second greatest American writer. [laughs]

RB: Yeah, that’s pretty true. But you’re teaching. And I recently read a book about, you know, academics summed up, as in Richard Russo’s Straight Man and I realized that I take it for granted that I understand what goes on in a contemporary English department. What’s it like teaching reading and English these days? You have a bunch of people who are teaching it, colleagues, and you have a bunch of kids coming in, many aspiring to be writers, what’s happening there? What’s the result of all that?

WG: Well, I’ll tell you, my department at Boston University is called the CAS Writing Program. It’s a sister ship to the English department.

RB: This is Leslie Epstein’s department?

WG: This is the undergraduate program. Leslie Epstein’s department is the graduate program. I have freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors who are studying a myriad of subjects, who come to me in order—

RB: The stuff that they come to you for is elective?

WG: It can be an elective, depending on what their major is, but I teach the American short story and I teach the memoir. And that means that every semester I am giving these kids books of stories and memoirs from all over the world and teaching them how to read them, how to write about them, in a very critical way. It’s essentially literary criticism. How do we read a book, and then how do we write something smart about what we’ve read?

RB: Are you at a point where you try to discourage them from pursuing the writing career?

WG: I don’t try to discourage them, but I’m very upfront with them. I tell them they should choose a less wobbly profession, something less lopsided. And they see—I’m very open about my job as a writer and I speak with them about what’s happening that week with a certain publication, or with my agent, or Norton, and they’re all very interested in that.

RB: But they don’t really know, they’re still sort of searching. Do you have kids who say, “I want to be a writer, this is what I’m going to do.”

WG: Yes, I got an email just yesterday as a matter of fact, from a senior. She took my class when she was a freshman, and she wrote to me and said, “You know, before I took your class I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, but it was your class that all these years later has had the most effect on me.”

RB: And now she can blame you.

WG: And now she can blame me, I know. I’m responsible.

RB: More importantly, is teaching what you aspire to?

WG: No, but I have loved it, and I’ve been grateful for it. But I’m been getting tired of teaching, Robert.

RB: Well, you teach two semesters? Three semesters and summers?

WG: I teach three classes every semester, on Tuesday and Thursday.

RB: For what, three hours a day?

WG: That’s right.

RB: And you have to read all their stuff?

WG: Read all their stuff and comment on it, so it’s obviously more than just three hours on Tuesday and Thursday. I meet with them, but as my family says—that ain’t work. I’ve got this great salary and I’ve got all these great benefits—my wife is covered with dental and my son is covered with a prescription plan.

RB: Well, is he a righty or a lefty?

WG: Ethan? We’re trying to figure that out. He’s grabbing everything with his left hand.

RB: Well I would definitely bind his right hand then. Because then you move him into baseball and you get him to be a pitcher and he’s golden. By the time he’s old enough to play in the majors that lefty pitcher position will probably be worth 30 or 40 million a year.

WG: You know something? You need to be our family financial adviser.

RB: So, we were talking about the fact that you don’t always want to be teaching because it’s hard earned. I imagine it takes you away from writing, so is what keeps you in teaching the fact that you have to make a steady living and etcetera?

WG: That’s part of it, absolutely.

RB: Could you be a carpenter?

WG: No, I could not, I definitely could not. I tried carpentry for many summers with my family. I just hate it, I don’t like getting up early in the morning, I don’t like physical labor, I’m profoundly indolent. Just the idea of physical labor makes me yawn. So, no I’m not any good at it, I don’t have any interest in it. My family, my uncles and my dad when he was alive, are extremely talented at it. My uncle with wood is like Michelangelo with stone, it’s just amazing the things he can do, I’m just in awe. Every time I see my uncles make something with wood—the things they can do with wood is just astounding. I came out of those summers with not only a profound respect for what they do but also the knowledge that I could never do it.

RB: So, what, is writing the default position in your life? Is there anything else you can do? Is there anything else you want to do?

WG: I can’t do anything else. I don’t even really want to write. It’s hard and I hate it. I wish I had picked up some other skill.

RB: Crime. A life of crime. Did you see the movie Out of Sight with George Clooney?

WG: And Jennifer Lopez.

RB: Based on a Elmore Leonard novel. That’s a blueprint for—

WG: Isn’t that the life?

RB: Yeah, you know, the guy doesn’t use a gun, he robs his banks with a note and his charm.

WG: And it’s a victimless crime.

RB: Yeah, he gets caught a couple times, which means he goes to jail.

WG: So, do you want to go into business together? Perhaps we could—I know a few banks that need some knocking over. They are very unkind to their patrons.

RB: I have a feeling we’re both losers. [laughs]

WG: [laughs]

RB: One of us has to be a winner. In partnership there has to be contrast, not matching.

WG: True, true. We would definitely be losers in the bank robbery business, I have a feeling. You know—interesting fact: What percentage of first time bank robbers do you think gets caught?

RB: Ninety. I think it’s pretty high.

WG: One percent of bank robbers gets caught their first time. Ninety get caught their second time. They get sloppy, they get greedy, they get careless. Interesting fact, right? Now listen, Robert, if we can make that first one a good one, make it a large score—

RB: [laughs] There was a great article in The New Yorker a few years ago, I don’t know about this—I think they were brothers? Either brothers or three partners who robbed banks all around the Midwest and were extremely successful. Apparently for a time retired or their home base was Kansas, and then, this was all learned in retrospect, and then they moved to Minnesota and took some of their monies and had some inconspicuous houses built up in the woods and stuff like that. And through some fluke they get caught, you know? They finally get caught. But, you know, they had an amazing string.

WG: How long did they last? Years?

RB: Years!

WG: Now they’re in prison though?

RB: Now they’re in prison. That was sort of the feeling you got from Heat, that DeNiro had been at it for a long time, you know. It reminds me of what somebody said about writers who write series, which is they usually write one or two too many. No one knows when to stop. Let me just say to you, by the way, I did enjoy your book, though it’s not my kind of story. Among other reasons, it’s hard for me to remember jokes and things that are funny. Like I could never remember something that Woody Allen said, you know? But it certainly was delightful. My kind of story is like, speaking of Ron Charles, Once Upon the River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which is this gritty in-the-woods story. Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Richard Ford, Russo—I try to understand why I’ve sort of settled on that stuff, it’s not really in my experience, I grew up in Chicago. I’m an urban kid, you know?

WG: That’s why you like Algren.

RB: And it’s why I like crime stories, because there’s something about the people that populate crime stories that remind me of people who live in the city. I just read some stories by a kid named Frank Bill, a book called Crimes in Southern Indiana. I mean, talk about gritty, this is like—have you seen Winter’s Bone?

WG: You know, I read the novel, it’s a little bit different from the—

RB: It’s all rusted wrecked cars in the driveways, trailer parks with abandoned appliances and everything’s rusted out and, you know, and the characters—

WG: Why does that strike a chord with you?

RB: I don’t know, I guess because that sense of—first of all, there’s a level of—I know what it was. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t warm up to Dana Spiotta’s book Stone Arabia. And why your book doesn’t quite hit it for me. There’s a certain level of engagement that the characters have in those kinds of stories that seems really palpable and really real to me, whereas when something like a picaresque, I look at as more like, I don’t know, not quite real. You know Spiotta’s book?

WG: I reviewed it, yes.

RB: Oh that’s right, you did. I was going to read it because I liked the writing. She’s obviously a smart woman, good prose, but I just couldn’t care about Nick and his sister.

WG: What you’re saying makes sense to me. There is an element of unreality to my novel, and of course, that’s part of the book’s mind. In other words, we never know, really, whether or nor what’s happening is real, and people keep confronting Charlie wherever he goes about the veracity of his tales, and so, for me, the book has something to say about that diaphanous line between the fictions and the facts, between the things that happen to us and the way we present those things to the world. And so, characters are constantly confronting Charlie on what he has written and the truth of those adventures. And he’s hyperbolic and he’s fantastical, so, for me that was very much part of the point, I very much wanted to write a story that called storytelling into question. About halfway through this book I realized I was writing a story about storytelling, about mythology, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, the stories we tell ourselves in order to explain ourselves to ourselves. And so, you’re absolutely right, that is definitely an acquired taste, I don’t think that Thomas McGuane fans who like the cowboy gritty will like Busy Monsters. But, you know, McGuane’s Panama is a hysterical book, miles away from the Montana hard scramble life. Panama was actually one of the influences for my book. I wanted to write a book that was that funny, that weird and irreverent.

RB: You’re going to send me back to it tonight. I’ll be reading it tonight.

William Giraldi photograph by Robert Birnbaum

WG: You can read it in a night, it’s just so well done. But would a fan of Richard Ford’s Rock Springs love Busy Monsters? I don’t know.

RB: I don’t think one’s required to make that choice. What I’m saying to you is of course I got twenty pages into it and I knew that I would want to talk to you, and it certainly is an interesting read and it does, you know—you don’t fall asleep during it. But there’s always two elements in reading a book: there’s the story, and how the story’s told. To me, in the story, I don’t really care about Charlie, I don’t really care if he gets the girl or not, and maybe his relationship with his father is the most real thing in the book and that sort of appeals to me, but all the rest of it is a picaresque, and I don’t think any of those characters—they’re sort of cartoon characters.

WG: Certainly. In a way they are.

RB: I mean look, I had to finish the book, that’s the one thing. I didn’t go, “Oh I know enough,” you know? But I’m just saying that my preference is these stories that somehow I find—

WG: True to your own experience?

RB: Well no, engaging. I don’t live in the Ozarks, I don’t know twelve year old girls that get raped by their fathers and get sold down the street to some meth freak. As in Frank Bill’s, Crimes in Southern Indiana.

WG: I saw an advertisement for that recently. Well, look, Busy Monsters is definitely—

RB: What did you want the reader—did you have an idea of what you want the reader to come away with?

WG: I have a hope—I hope that the reader will find it refreshing, unlike anything else he might have read before. A book that attempts to do new things with language, a book that tends to break expectations, break the mold of what a literary novel can do. I’m very much interested in mythology, in fairytale, in folklore, and I wanted to write something that incorporated all of those. Nothing in the book defies physics, and yet it’s—

RB: Which is why you’re strongly against the UFO and the little Filipino midget—

WG: He’s a con man.

RB: What was the argument that you used? That you used to defend his interest in Sasquatch and the squid?

WG: The argument that Charlie uses?

RB: Yeah, doesn’t he say something about none of these things defy physics?

WG: Yes, he says—Morris Hammerstein, the Jewish astronomer whom he meets out in Colorado, says to him, “I mean, I don’t believe anything that’s happening, and I’m reading your memoirs every week and this is crazy.” And Charlie says, “What are you talking about? Nothing that happens in my memoirs defies physics, everything here is perfectly explainable.” But of course, the stories that Charlie tells flirt with the otherworldly, with the fantastical, and without ever really getting there. That was liberating for me, refreshing. I had begun my writing career as being powerfully influenced by the gritty realism of Hemingway and Carver, the domestic dramas of Carver, and I just didn’t feel like, after so many stories—I just felt like I needed to do something that was more aligned with my own personality. Busy Monsters is more representative of my own interests and my own, what you called sensibility, what I call vision.

RB: You say potato, I say—

WG: That’s right. I mean, my hope is that readers will be excited by this novel, that they will find it weird and different and liberating in a way that they could definitely laugh at these sentences but also be intrigued by the way Charlie moves through the world.

RB: Are you aware that as these people criticize Charlie, his writing and stories, that he, in fact, has an audience. People like Morris, he’s critical, but he still reads them.

WG: Exactly, and they’re all begging him not to put them in his memoirs. “You’d better not write about me next week,” they say.

RB: Well he does promise Morris, doesn’t he?

WG: Yes, and he betrays him. He makes up for that betrayal by sending him a check—

RB: Well, Morris demands it. So, seven years later you published a book, it’s been edited, you’ve had feedback. So now, as you embark upon whatever this publicity initiative is and you pick up the book and read sections, do you want change anything? Are you going to leave it now? Are you satisfied?

WG: I have to be. I have to be satisfied with this. It’s finished. And it’s funny you ask that, because in reading some sections I might say, “Oh, I want to change that word.” Or, “Oh, maybe that comma should’ve been a semi-colon.” That’s when Flaubert said he knew he was done with a piece, when he would spend half a day sitting at his desk changing a comma to a semi-colon and back again.

RB: So for the paperback, you’re not even going to look at it, right?

WG: I don’t know if Norton is going to give me the option to do that. I don’t think—

RB: If they’re smart they won’t.

WG: Right. I’ve made my peace with this book and what it is, and I’m very pleased with it, and it’s going to stay this way into perpetuity.

RB: Okay, one last question, which is, what’s next?

WG: Well, my wife is expecting our second child, so that is next.

RB: When?

WG: In March. And my son just turned two—raising him is next. So, my son and my wife—our life is always the first thing on my mind. Figuring out where Ethan’s going to go to school and figuring out what’s the best way to raise him.

RB: Where do you live?

WG: We live in Cambridge. But as far as writing goes—what’s next? I don’t know. I would love to do a collection of short stories, and a collection of my essays, whether it’s the critical work that I do or—

RB: So you’re not already into that cycle where you’re on to the next book?

WG: God no, I’m not.

RB: So, conceivably, the next good book could take you as long as this book did.

WG: Well, if we were going to put out a collection of essays, I have a lot of those done, and they’ve been published. Whether they’re personal essays or whether they’re critical essays, those are two different books, because in addition to being a novelist, there’s also the literary criticism that I do, and I write a lot of short memoirs as well. And so, I’d be able to put together a book of essays or criticism. But I don’t think that would be a good idea for the market. I don’t think they would sell very well.

RB: Well you’re with a house that’s not necessarily commercially driven, they still put out poetry, for example. Do you do journalism? Do you do film reviews or travel pieces or any of that? Do you see yourself as a Grub Street kind of writer?

WG: I don’t know what a Grub Street writer is.

RB: It means you’ll do anything, you’ll write anything.

WG: I don’t know how to write anything. I’ve never done travel writing because I hate to travel. The closest I’ve ever come to writing about film is an essay I did for The Believer magazine about The Exorcist. It was a critical assessment of the film but also a personal piece about how I was nearly born in the theater when my mother went to see it—she was so afraid of it, she was five months pregnant with me and she was so afraid she thought I was going to be expelled right there on the floor.

RB: You’re Catholic and you were almost born during The Exorcist.

WG: Isn’t that amazing? What a mess.

RB: Well let’s leave it at that. Thank you so much.

WG: Okay, thank you, I really appreciate the time.

Currently reading Capitol by John Lancaster (WW Norton)