Everyone should be so lucky to have a teacher like the writer Philip Graham. In the spring of 1990 I walked into his introductory creative writing class at the University of Illinois and started a conversation with him that has lasted almost 20 years. In no particular order, he: 1) introduced me to the lasting pleasures of writing creatively, 2) saved me from going to law school, 3) helped me secure my first teaching job, and 4) provided general support and encouragement as I’ve attempted to navigate the waters of teaching, writing, and publishing. On the occasion of the publication of his sixth and latest book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon, I decided that he and I should try to capture one of our conversations, including what it’s like being “discovered” by the New Yorker, studying writing with Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme, teaching and writing for close to 30 years, and taking edits from the kid who got a B in your introductory creative writing class.
JW: On Sept. 17, 1979, your story, “Light Bulbs” (later collected in The Art of the Knock) was published in the New Yorker. Tell me the story of publishing that story.
PG: Oh, so we’re starting off by spinning the dial nearly all the way back on the Way-Back Machine?
JW: How old were you when it was published?
PG: I was 27 when I received the acceptance in the mail and, because the surprise didn’t kill me, by the time the story appeared in the magazine two months later I’d managed to make it to 28.
JW: How long did it take you to write the story?
PG: At least nine months, from planting to picking. “Light Bulbs” was inspired by an anecdote told to me by [short-story writer] Ann Beattie, about the parents of her first husband, the writer David Gates.
My wife, Alma, and I had become friends with Ann and David when we all lived in Charlottesville, Va., in the mid-’70s. Alma was taking classes toward her doctorate in anthropology, and I was working in the Virginia Poets-in-the-Schools program, fresh off receiving my graduate degree in creative writing at City College in New York, where I’d studied with Donald Barthelme and Frederic Tuten. Don was a big fan of Ann’s work, and when he heard I was moving to Charlottesville he suggested that I look her up, as she had a teaching gig at the university there.
I did no such thing, too shy and embarrassed to contemplate a tongue-tied appearance at her office door. But after a few months loneliness won out, and I finally introduced myself. A couple of years later Ann and David moved to Connecticut, and in the fall of 1978, Alma and I drove up for a visit. After dinner we got into one of those “our crazy parents” gossip fests—you know, the kinds of stories you need to tell at that age to help loosen the strings of attachment.
Anyway, when it came David’s turn to divulge some parental goodies, he simply couldn’t bring himself to tell the tale, so Ann did—and with great glee, by the way. As I remember her telling, it went like this: David’s parents once went overboard with those light-switch timers that can be set to go on and off when you’re out of town so you seem to still be home. They collected so many, and adjusted them so often—even to go out to see a movie—that after a while they simply stopped disconnecting the timers, and the lights eventually went out of synch. Once, Ann recalled, she and David were having dinner with his parents, and though the lights turned off in the middle of the meal, everyone pretended nothing was amiss.
I asked—no, begged—David if he’d let me try to write a story about this, and he graciously gave me the nod.
My first version went nowhere, of course, since it didn’t rise above a retelling of the anecdote. A transcription, not really a story, but I didn’t know how to bring it alive. Later, though, the manuscript was stolen—or rather, the briefcase that held it and four other stories was stolen—out of the trunk of our car in New York. This was in early 1979, before personal computers, so I had no copies and had to recall the lost work from memory. This actually turned out to be a blessing—I mainly remembered what mattered most. Also, by this time something in my life now adhered to that anecdote. Alma had received a grant to do her initial fieldwork in Africa, and our parents began huffing and puffing about the prospect of our living in a small African village. Their worries made our lives a bit difficult, actually. Though Alma and I grew miffed at it all—we were in our late-ish 20s, weren’t we adults?—I came to realize just how hard it is for parents to release their children and let them live their lives. With that shock of empathy, those light bulbs in my story became more than light bulbs, they became also stand-ins for the mother and father’s absent children, the ones they still couldn’t bear to let go.
JW: How did you send it to the New Yorker? Unsolicited? Agent?
PG: I just sent it in. I’d already published in the Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review and elsewhere, but the New Yorker held the stuff of our dreams, and in those heady days, any yokel like me could mail a story to the New Yorker and find a sympathetic editor to correspond with. What later became the case, unfortunately, is that the magazine stopped reading un-agented submissions, though they neglected to mention this to all those hopeful writers out there. You’re the fella who broke this story, isn’t that right?
After a few initial and predictable rejections, I began receiving typewritten letters responding to my little efforts from Roger Angell. JW: Well, I wouldn’t say broke so much as noticed what was right in front of everyone’s faces. I actually feel really bad about the tone I took in that piece. With some hindsight, I can see that what’s coming out of me is mostly hurt feelings, as if someone changed the game and no one told me. I’d always imagined that the route to “successful” writerdom was much like the story you’re telling us here. Find the right person to notice you and “voila!” career. I think I felt like the New Yorker had an obligation to continue to fulfill that function, when in reality, they no longer can. They can’t really be faulted for doing what they have to in order to survive. David Remnick just announced that they’re canceling one of the two yearly fiction issues. We’re probably lucky that they still publish any fiction at all because I’m certain it doesn’t move copies off of newsstands. It’s easy to look in the past and think of it as a Golden Age, when in reality, it was just a different age. Still, I love hearing the-New-Yorker-discovered-me stories. It’s almost like a fairy tale, so please continue.
PG: Anyway, after a few initial and predictable rejections, I began receiving typewritten letters responding to my little efforts from Roger Angell. Again, this was typical of the magazine then, that distinguished editors would devote time to nurture writers considered promising in some way. The attention certainly raised the bar for my ambition. “Light Bulbs” was the 11th or 12th story I’d sent to The New Yorker. So I was coming off a string of at least 10 straight rejections before slipping that story in the mail.
JW: How did you find out that they wanted to publish it?
PG: The old-fashioned way: the Pony Express came and delivered. Well, the mail carrier. I’d submitted two stories together, so when I first saw the manila SASE, I thought, “Eh, maybe next time.” But it felt lighter than it should have, so I ripped open the envelope right outside the front door, and sure enough, only one story had been returned. Then my eyes lasered in on that letter.
JW: Just over 30 years after publishing “Light Bulbs,” your latest book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon was published. Did 1979 Philip Graham think that 2009 Philip Graham would still be writing and publishing?
PG: Oh, I certainly hoped so! That’s the big worry, isn’t it, that the juices stop flowing, or the world simply yawns you to silence. I’ve long loved the novels of the British writer Henry Green, I think he’s one of the great unsung writers of the 20th century. He wrote a regular string of remarkable novels from 1926 to 1952, and then stopped, not another word for the remaining 20 years of his life. Green’s sudden silence haunted me, worried me that there might be an invisible precipice inside that I wouldn’t geographically pinpoint until I walked off it. Now my worry is how many of the many books I’m in the middle of writing—five, currently, with more bubbling beneath—I’ll be able to finish before kicking off into the great unknown. If there’s an afterlife, I hope they like to read.
JW: I’m glad to hear that someone else doesn’t stick with one project at a time. At the moment I have three partial novels, 13 short stories and one non-fiction advice book all in various stages of progress. Some of them go back more than 10 years. Does having multiple things going help or hurt your ultimate productivity?
PG: The different projects feed each other in odd ways, which I’m grateful for, but they do slow down each other’s forward motion. I tend to publish books in clumps—three books back-to-back-to-back in the mid-’90s, and now, besides The Moon, Come to Earth, I have another book, Braided Worlds, coming out next year, and perhaps another the following year. I used to wish I could be one of those writers who publishes a book every couple of years or so, but I’m stuck with my imagination’s modus operandi and I’ve come to appreciate it.
JW: Is there ever any anxiety over your own creative MO? That’s been one of my most constant struggles, a love of starting things, less interest in finishing them. I tell myself it’s better than working on something where I’m not feeling inspired, but it took me almost 15 years of trying to finally finish a novel at least good enough to take a shot at publication. Aren’t we all struggling with a sense that we might be doing it “wrong?” Or with age, is peace and wisdom achieved?
PG: Oh, I’m much more relaxed about the whole process than I used to be. Basically, all that matters is what appears on the page, I don’t worry so much anymore about publishing schedules. I’m primarily interested in the trial and error of forging the patterns of my imagination’s fingerprint; the grimy marks it may leave on the world comes later.
JW: Your new book is a collection of dispatches originally published on the McSweeney’s website, but it’s different from those dispatches in large and small ways. What are some of the large ways?
PG: What might have remained a batch of occasional essays quickly became a continuing story of my family’s year living in Lisbon, a series of interweaving narratives, actually—though the most important one concerns my then-11-year-old daughter’s experience of living abroad while slipping from childhood to the unpredictable shoals of adolescence, a story that became more complicated as the year progressed, a story that seemed to tie in with whatever I was doing, whether exploring a medieval, stone-walled wolf trap in an isolated mountain landscape, or meeting and being dissed by José Saramago, or visiting the taping of a loopy Portuguese reality show. At the time I felt that I was a character recording a narrative I couldn’t see the end of, and that I was struggling to read the significance of signs surrounding me. There are a series of dispatches that I reserved for the end of the book version, which continue and fill out that narrative. People who have read the book say that this brings an unexpected additional dimension to the online dispatches, and I certainly intended that.
JW: How weird was it to have a former student editing your work?
PG: Not as weird as I thought it might be.
I was a big fan of Roy Kesey’s dispatches from China, which I came to through my admiration for his fiction—I’d accepted two of his stories for [University of Illinois arts and literary journal] Ninth Letter. I found his dispatches to be so engaging that, when the time for our leaving for Lisbon approached, I thought to contact you about giving the form a try myself. But I almost didn’t, because I was afraid this might put you in an odd position. What if I tried my hand at a few dispatches and they stunk, what would you do? Yet after mulling over those worries I simply barreled through them (as I sometimes do too often in my life) and asked you.
Happily, you liked my early attempts, and I found your editing to have a light touch, in the best ways—always on point, never intrusive to the detriment of the work. I learned something from you that I’ve applied to my editing at Ninth Letter. So, thank you, I should have mentioned this much earlier.
My only complaint was your insistence on identifying Lisbon’s Tejo River as the Tagus. That English version is such an ugly little lump of a word, with no hint of the musicality of the original. Anyway, no biggie—I simply changed it in the book version.
Africa has wrapped itself around my fiction in ways I couldn’t possibly have predicted. JW: That light touch is wholly a function of time, or lack thereof. As an editor, I figure the easiest route to success is to find writers who essentially aren’t going to send in their work until it’s just about as good as it’s going to be. I think the editor’s work on the manuscript should be, at most, a 5% (and really less) improvement. I can’t imagine being a Gordon Lish type who basically rewrites the entire piece. Maybe this is a function of being a writer as well and not appreciating it when someone takes a hatchet to my work, but my default is to trust the writer.1
From the Typewriter to the iPad
JW: What did publishing “Light Bulbs” mean to you, career-wise? Is it what led to publishing The Moon Come to Earth, 30 years later?
PG: At first, the story followed me around the world. “Light Bulbs” was published the week before Alma and I left the country to begin her Africa research. We spent a lot of time in New York saying good-bye to friends, and on every magazine stand there was the New Yorker facing out, my story nestled inside. Then we flew first to Paris, where Alma met with several French anthropologists (Ivory Coast is a former French colony), and she even snagged a brief audience with Claude Levi-Strauss. And during that week, the New Yorker made it to France, and once again, the issue with my story inside faced out from various magazine stands. Then we flew to Ivory Coast, where, in the library of the American Cultural Center in the country’s capital, Abidjan, and in a few downtown bookstores, the issue that by then I considered my issue (even though the big-shot writer inside was Truman Capote, not me) once again made its appearance. Three weeks, total, the nicest stalking I ever experienced.
And then, I forgot all about it, as I was too busy living in a small African village with Alma, knocking my head, alongside hers, against the secrets of a previously unrecorded language, recovering now and then from a few bouts of malaria, and in general trying to find some grounding in the midst of too much culture shock.
One day, though, five months into our eventual 15-month stay, Alma and I were visiting M’Bahiakro, the nearest town—20 dirt-road miles away from our village—and discovered a letter from the agent Elaine Markson in our post office box. She’d read “Light Bulbs,” decided she wanted to represent me and sent her letter to the New Yorker. They forwarded her request—boat rate, by the way, which is why the letter took five months to make its way to me.
JW: Your African experiences, at least from what I can tell, seem to have indelibly colored your work.
PG: Curiously enough, I’ve only written one short story that physically takes place there, though I have co-written with Alma a memoir about our experiences, Parallel Worlds, and we’re now revising the manuscript of a sequel, Braided Worlds. Yet Africa has wrapped itself around my fiction in ways I couldn’t possibly have predicted.
Your head will get turned around a bit if your unusual bicycle accident gets labeled by village neighbors as an attack by hill spirits, or if you wake in the middle of the night in your mud-brick house to the rustlings of a nearby poisonous snake, or if you feel the need to consult a diviner for writer’s block, but those events are the mere particulars of a larger cultural universe. The main lesson I learned, living in small villages among the Beng people in Ivory Coast, is how much of culture is invisible. People often behaved, to my lights, in unusual ways, but it wasn’t always obvious why. Alma’s job, as an anthropologist, was to try to uncover the why, and slowly she began to figure out the cosmology, the belief system and cultural assumptions vividly alive within all of our village neighbors, the local common sense that wasn’t immediately obvious to an outsider. Returning to the United States, that lesson learned got trained on the culture I grew up with, and then the invisible of home began to coalesce, which I eventually realized was a great potential gift to my writing.
So Africa lurks behind virtually everything I write, certainly all my fiction that seems to be set in America, particularly my novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, the stories of Interior Design, and especially the novel I’m working on right now.
JW: Why especially?
PG: The third and last time Alma and I lived among the Beng, my father passed away back in America, and because we were living in an isolated village I heard too late to return and attend his funeral. So, after some soul searching, I decided to give him a village funeral. It was a three-week affair, with ritual mourning lines, all-night singing sessions, and animal sacrifices. The works. In the middle of all this, Kokora Kouassi, a revered religious leader and a dear friend, began having dreams in which my dad appeared to him because my father was now an honorary member of the Beng afterlife. Kouassi would come to our village compound in the mornings and report my father’s latest message.
I chose to read those morning sessions as a good friend’s empathetic dreams, his way of helping me mourn my distant father by bringing him closer—the Beng believe that the dead continue their lives invisibly among the living. But the thought of my father’s posthumous border-crossing wouldn’t let me go, and though at the time I was still working on my first novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, I set it aside for a month or so when a series of characters began brimming up. They were all ghosts, all Americans, but they existed in an afterlife resembling that of the Beng. Since then, six or seven chapters of this ghost novel have appeared in magazines over the years and I’m now nearing what I hope are the book’s final revisions. At the same time, I’m writing the nonfiction account of my father’s death and African funeral in Braided Worlds. I’m also putting together an anthology of short stories that feature dreams, and a novella I’m writing, based on my experiences as a volunteer near Ground Zero in New York, is suffused with the presence of the dead, and dreams. As I mentioned before, because I work on several projects at once each book becomes a continuing influence on the others.
JW: Going back to that first time you lived in Africa, how did the New Yorker acceptance then affect your career when you returned to the U.S. in 1981?
In time, perhaps at least some books will only appear as e-books, though I hope with all my heart that the soft comforting book will always be with us. PG: I’d have to say that it probably helped me get my first college-level teaching job, and certainly helped my agent sell my story collection to William Morrow, The Art of the Knock. That was the excitement of submitting work to the New Yorker then—out of the blue you could send in a story and two weeks later you might receive a response that could change your life, give you an opportunity to make the most of, if you so chose.
JW: Can you imagine an equivalent to your New Yorker experience today? You watched your story spread across the globe. It got into the hands of a legendary literary agent who wanted to represent your work to New York publishers. That seems over. Is it over?
PG: I think the internet offers those sorts of possibilities. As you know, when I was writing my Lisbon dispatches for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, I’d finish a piece and see it published a few days to a week or so later. Fast. Then immediately I’d hear from readers all over the world. It’s a much more decentralized literary landscape now, with a proliferation of websites.2 There’s always the possibility of enthusiasm for someone’s work going viral, so the excitement and energy is broader, there’s less of a bottleneck of supplicants kneeling before the New Yorker or the Atlantic or Harper’s. Narrative is a magazine that has carved out a successful chunk of digital territory, and I just read that they’re launching an iPhone app called the iStory—150-word-long little buggers. Then of course there are a number of print magazines that hold their own brimming tablespoons of literary prestige.3
JW: That seems to get back to the Golden Age v. Different Age question. On the one hand, it’s lamentable that popular commercial media that used to publish fiction (Cosmo, Redbook, Vanity Fair, Esquire, etc.) don’t anymore, but it’s not like there’s any less fiction being produced and for those that are interested, there’s any number of ways to connect with readers and writers on sites like LibraryThing or GoodReads, or through something like The Morning News Tournament of Books. There’s plenty of conversation out there.
PG: I’d have to say that the majority of books I buy these days come from my reading reviews on websites.4 That’s how I encountered the work of Jesse Ball and Grégoire Bouillier, the poetry of Robyn Schiff. The Tournament of Books (which holds me in addicted thrall each March) led me to the work of Joshua Ferris and Stephen Marche, and Keith Lee Morris’s The Dart League King. Currently I have four books on my table that I’m trying to carve out some time for, and all of them I first learned of through internet literary sites: Simon Mawer’s novel The Glass Room; Agnes Owens’s The Complete Novellas; Soul, stories by Andrey Platonov; and Karl O. Knausgaard’s novel, A Time for Everything. Surfing the web is getting expensive.
JW: There’s also more ways for aspiring writers to connect with others, easing some of the isolation that’s usually associated with the practice. After my MFA program, I might’ve quit writing if not for the online Zoetrope writer’s workshop.5
PG: And thank goodness for that! This is a good time to be a young writer, so much virtual community to take part in.6 You were part of the beginning of this brave new world, with The Morning News and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency—what was that like?
JW: At the time, of course, you never think much of it. I was just glad to have places to publish my work and be read. The aforementioned rant at the New Yorker was published on The Morning News in 2003 and I still get emails about it every few months. My first two books came about from editors approaching me based on pieces I’d published online. One of the greatest pleasures of working on the McSweeney’s site has been “discovering” writers who have gone on to bigger and better things.7 This past fall we held a contest for new columnists and one of the winners was a 17-year-old high school student named Caroline Lazar, who I’m pretty sure could have a writing career if she wants one. One of our other new columnists was contacted by an editor from a major publishing company. Another has television sniffing around with interest.
Still, for all of that, I can’t quite shake the mentality that writing isn’t “real” until it shows up in print somewhere. Is that something you struggle with? Is it an attitude you still see among your academic colleagues?
PG: For digital vs. print, as a reader I’ve stopped thinking about the distinction, since it seems much more these days a difference of format, not quality. I read excellent work all the time on the web, while at the same time I’m finding Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room to be a big, beautiful block of a book. As a writer, I loved writing my Lisbon dispatches as a continuing series, loved the flexibility of a dispatch being able to appear almost immediately on the McSweeney’s website, whenever a new one was ready in the chute. And now that a longer, heftier version of the series has been collected into book form (the “meat version,” I sometimes call it), I’ve enjoyed rousting about in the traditional way, giving readings and interviews.
In many ways, the advent of the e-book will begin to blur any distinctions to nothingness, I think, in terms of prestige. In time, perhaps at least some books will only appear as e-books, though I hope with all my heart that the soft comforting book will always be with us. People talk about an e-reader competing with physical books, but I wonder if an e-reader is really competing with a bookshelf—it’s a portable stack of books, and so eventually becomes a quite personal item, since it contains the history and evidence of your reading habits. Maybe that’s why I know so many people—like Richard Powers, Robert Olen Butler—who love the thing
I don’t have an e-reader yet, but you’re a convert to the Kindle, aren’t you?
JW: I may dispute the word “convert” in that I don’t think using a Kindle or e-reader means giving up the good old hard-copy book, but indeed, I do a lot of my reading on the Kindle now. Rather than a bookshelf, I see it more as a bookstore. For example, I’m deep in my reading preparation for this year’s Tournament of Books, and this past weekend, I finished one of the competitors on Saturday night. Sunday morning, I flipped through the sample chapters from the titles I haven’t read, chose one, downloaded it and finished the book by evening.
A lot of creative writing advice is filled with dangerous good intentions. With the Kindle, I can be sitting at my breakfast island, as I am now, and—for example—hear Maureen Corrigan recommend a title during a review on Fresh Air, and while barely breaking stride in my typing, flip over to Amazon and send the first chapter to my Kindle where it will wait for me until I can sample it. With the Kindle, I need only hear about a book once and it may wind up purchased. As long as that opening chapter sucks me in.8
PG: That free first chapter deal worries me. Is it really representative? I can think of so many books that do a slow burn and reserve the goods for later. And imagine receiving for free the first chapter of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Sure, the authority of the writing would draw you in, but what if you weren’t in the mood for what you thought would be a seafaring tale of the 19th century?
JW: Well, it isn’t that it’s the first chapter in isolation that might influence the decision to keep going, but it probably does put more of a premium on engaging the reader from the get go. I think a slow burn is fine, though, as long as the reader gets the feeling that there’s a fire. Usually, for me, it’s just a matter of the whether or not the prose itself hooks me, if this feels like an intelligence that I might want to spend some time with.
I have 30 first chapters waiting on the device for the next time I need a new book. Many of those are books that are never going to appear on the front of store pyramid at Barnes & Noble. The moment I read your mention of The Glass Room, I went and sent the first chapter to my Kindle. If Simon Mawer had to rely on my remembering his book (and then actually finding it) next time I’m in the bookstore, he’d never be able to gain me as a reader. Now, at least he’s got a shot.
I also think digital has the potential to be a great leveler since non-corporate presses won’t have to fight for physical real estate in the stores in order to get purchased.
Like, for example, despite your skepticism, I note that The Moon, Come to Earth is available in a Kindle version. How do you feel about that?
PG: Pretty good, oddly enough. There’s a weird thrill about thinking that some interested soul could receive my book in less than a minute and then start right in on it. And because The Moon, Come to Earth began as a series of dispatches on the web, it feels as if my book has come full circle to reclaim something of its original digital soul. And I suppose, if you’re traveling to Portugal and have a Kindle, it’s an easy way to bring along my book, though I might add this unbiased opinion that its paperback self is perfectly portable, too.
On the other hand, if I’m in the middle of a book that amazes me, I’ll actually hug it. If the book extends its impact right to the last page, I might actually kiss the cover, or offer a heartfelt “thank you.” I know that sounds demented, but I am demented, books matter that much to me. I can’t quite imagine embracing a Kindle.
JW: In Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, the narrator is a poet tasked with writing the introduction to a poetry anthology and he sleeps surrounded by books in bed, so you’re not that demented.
While you may not hug a Kindle, there is someone deeply involved with digital book technology whom you do hug. Your son, Nathaniel, was involved with the development of the iPad, more specifically, with the iBooks application. I feel like I’m supposed to ask if that’s ironic.
PG: No, I am the proudest of proud fathers. He kept his role on this project a secret from us—his wife, even—until the big Steve Jobs launch back in January. I have a feeling there’s an iPad in my future.
JW: I think the even bigger question is whether or not there’s an iPad (or digital-book device) in everyone’s future? Do you think the digital revolution has finally found its footing? Are we on the way to a fundamentally changed notion of what is or is not a “book?”
PG: I think we’re taking the baby steps to that future, and it will take some adapting, more of less, for everyone. You have to remember, I wrote my first two books on a typewriter! While I’m willing to accept reading a novel on an e-book reader, I’m going to miss the bookshelf. They’re self-portraits of someone’s intellectual and emotional growth through reading, a display of a certain aspect of one’s inner life, and each book’s thumbed-through pages can evoke a synaptic response of sometimes great intensity. Bookshelves are a unique form of self-revelation and revelation to others, and I’d be sad to see that go.
JW: The Moon, Come to Earth is being published by University of Chicago Press. How is this different from your experience with New York publishers?
PG: Chicago will keep my book in print. A book about living for a year in Lisbon, one that’s secretly a book about the drama of family? Though this book is absolutely dear to my heart, it doesn’t immediately smell like blockbuster spirit. But I like to think it does have the potential to generate steady sales as the years pass. New York presses don’t do books like that anymore, at least not very well, I think, so I didn’t give them a second thought when I’d finished The Moon, Come to Earth. Besides, the University of Chicago Press has kept the paperback edition of Parallel Worlds, the memoir of Africa Alma and I wrote together, in print for 16 years now, enabling it to be taught during that time in over 300 college courses, by latest count.
And Chicago is such a cool press, small enough to indulge a book’s possible long odds, while powerful enough to get an author some attention. They even agreed to publish The Moon, Come to Earth as a paperback original.9
Paley, Barthelme, Butler
JW: Fifteen years ago I came to you seeking advice on applying to MFA programs in creative writing. When students come to you with the same questions today, do you give them the same advice?
PG: First off, I’m much more aware, I like to think, that a lot of creative writing advice is filled with dangerous good intentions. So I’m a bit cautious when I suggest to my undergraduates, as I’m inclined to do, that they go out in the world and collect an unpredictable array of scars before they take on the challenge of an MFA. On the other hand, as Flannery O’Connor has said, anyone who has survived childhood already has enough material to last a lifetime. My point is that one size doesn’t fit all, but I do confess to thinking that part of the necessary slow cooking of writing is giving your life a chance to simmer, and paying attention as it does.
Alma and I went to the reading, and we were only two of four people in a good-sized auditorium. The other two people were the writer’s wife and son. You had been out in the world a year or so when you came to me for advice, and I remember I urged you to apply to McNeese State, where Robert Olen Butler was teaching at the time. You admired his short stories in A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, and I suspected that something of this admiration was pointing you to a kind of writing you wanted to try. Also, I couldn’t imagine a place in the U.S. that could be more culturally distant from Chicago than Lake Charles, La., and I thought a little culture shock would do you good. Jeez, I sound like some kind of mad scientist mixing potions, don’t I? Did you realize at the time that you were in a test tube?
JW: My head was so far up my own ass I’m sure I didn’t realize anything. My matriculation to graduate school was conceived and executed in a state of near total ignorance. I just knew I didn’t want to go to law school, and that I didn’t want to keep working as a paralegal. I was so desperate that the year before I’d applied to join the cast of the third season of The Real World. I’m lucky that someone else was thinking for me. Who helped you when you were considering an MFA?
PG: My undergraduate mentor at Sarah Lawrence College, Grace Paley. She lived across the street, literally, from Donald Barthelme, on 11th Street in New York; they were friends and admirers of each other’s work—Don dedicated his story collection Amateurs to her. I’d been out of school for a while, working my way through a series of odd jobs (the wildest probably being a month-long stint as a Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue, though being a short-lived upholsterer’s apprentice probably comes in a close second), and when I asked her for advice she suggested that I apply to City College, where Don was teaching at the time.
JW: So you had the opportunity to study with two faces that belong on the Mount Rushmore of American short story writers. Was that hard? Intimidating?
PG: I was too dumb to be intimidated. Well, I was a little intimidated, but Grace could set anyone at ease right away, and Don, while he had a funny formal way about him, was actually quite kind and inviting. When I was studying at City, I’d drop by 11th Street and be able to catch them both. Depending on my mood, I’d visit Don first, and drink too much, and then cross the street and visit Grace, and receive a nice warm cup of something. Or else I’d first have a nice warm cup of something at Grace’s apartment and then off to Don’s to drink too much.
Don was a great line editor, but he also had an almost uncanny sense of identifying the bigger picture in your work. And sometimes, he could just floor you with a seemingly off-hand comment. I remember having a conference with him, and he was red-penning his way through a long list in one of my stories, banishing about 50% of what I had there. When I asked him why, he said, “Philip, if you invite someone to read through a list, each entry should be worthy of attention.” I’m sure he conveyed this far more elegantly, but that’s the general drift, that you have to work harder than hard to deserve the gift of a reader’s attention.
Grace Paley, by the way, was also an extraordinary teacher, very no nonsense about what was on the page, but quite generous, too, about a story’s potential. Most of all, she taught by example—she was one of the great short story writers, and yet her demeanor was utterly ordinary and everyday, and this was a revelation to me, a young writer who would have been just as impressed, I’m embarrassed to admit, by literary pretence (my callow undergraduate self toyed with a pipe at the time, for perceived added intellectual gravitas). Grace’s commitment to revising became my own life-long calling, and her engagement with the world, with politics—she was always getting arrested for protesting the Vietnam War—continues to inspire me. Though we could go years without seeing each other, she remained one of my more powerful internal presences, someone whose respect I was consciously and unconsciously trying to earn. Still am.
JW: You’ve written in The Moon, Come to Earth about meeting with Grace shortly before she died.
PG: Yes, the poet Jean Valentine—one of Grace’s former colleagues at Sarah Lawrence—and I were teaching at the Vermont College summer MFA residency in 2007, and as Grace lived only about a half hour or so away from Montpelier, we drove to her home for a visit, knowing that she was losing her fight with cancer. During that visit, I somehow found myself alone in the kitchen preparing a meal for everyone, and you can bet I tried to fit all my gratitude into each dish. That experience of offering Grace a meal became one of her last gifts to me, an unexpected inspiration when my daughter soon after fell ill just before we left Portugal.
JW: You sent me off to McNeese to study with Robert Olen Butler because, as you said, you had a specific sense that he’d be a good fit for me, a serendipitous choice. How did you two meet, anyway?
PG: Alma and I had recently returned from our first trip to Africa, and we were living in a suburb of New York, a quiet place where we could decompress and go about fitting together two very different worlds inside us—the one we’d left, the one we’d returned to. Anyway, I saw a notice in the paper that a local writer, who had received a glowing review in the New York Times for his first novel, The Alleys of Eden, would be giving a reading at the nearby public library. Never heard of the guy, but I thought, why not? So Alma and I went to the reading, and we were only two of four people in a good-sized auditorium. Bob came out to the podium, gave the room a quick glance, and then proceeded to give a spectacular, generous reading, as if he were facing a packed house at the 92nd Street Y. Later I went up to speak to him, and it turned out the other two people were his wife and son. I’ve never forgotten that lesson—no matter how many or how few people show up for your reading, give it your all. There’s just one person sitting in the room? You consider that a select audience.
Too many young writers think a career is one story published here, a better story published in a better venue there, and so on and so on, while some literary clock ticks away, judging the value of every passed second. JW: Which reminds me, self-confidence is also important when you teach. At what point (if ever) did you get the feeling that you really knew what you were doing, teaching-wise? I’m not suggesting that you sensed you’d figured everything out, just that you realized that you were approaching the work with a certain confidence grounded in genuine competence?
PG: Over the course of time I’ve worried less and less that I might totally humiliate myself before an entire class. But genuine competence? I don’t know if that feeling will ever truly arrive. Just as I’m an obsessive reviser of my writing, I’m always revisiting what I think I know when it comes to teaching. Young writers are too individual a bunch to allow me to rest on what I might be tempted to consider pedagogical laurels.
JW: How often, if ever, do you have the sensation that a student could—for lack of a better phrase—make something of themselves, you know, write and find an audience? I’m talking undergraduates here, and no, I’m not asking if I was one of them.
PG: Fairly often, which is a little depressing, because so many simply don’t follow up on their talent. Sometimes I think, “Oh, if I could have written this well when I was his or her age, where would I be today?” I still assume that startling writing talent means that a student will be interested in pursuing a career as a writer. But that’s not always the case, which means of course that my students are far more complicated than I think they are.
JW: I have the same sensation. This past semester I was part of a committee for an undergraduate honors thesis in creative writing for a student who was in my introductory workshop and since then went on to additional coursework. The stories in her thesis were great. Incredibly impressive. In my course she showed obvious promise and ability, and in the 18 months since she’s become a fully operational writer with plenty of growth ahead. And here’s the kicker, she thinks she’s probably done with it. Her post graduation plans are to do Teach for America, and I think she’s considering social work after that. My colleague, the aforementioned Keith Morris, was on the committee, and I think he and I badgered her for a good 10 minutes about not writing anymore until Keith asked a pretty perceptive question, something along the lines of whether or not she thought writing “mattered.” Without being dismissive, she basically said, “not really,” at least not next to the good she thinks she can do by directing her energies elsewhere. I can’t say she’s wrong about that, but on the other hand, I don’t want to admit she’s right.
PG: Yet she might not be done with writing. Teach for America, followed by social work will deepen her life in such unpredictable ways that she may very well find herself, perhaps years from now, bubbling with stories inspired by what she’s seen and learned. There’s no expiration date on inspiration. Too many young writers think a career is one story published here, a better story published in a better venue there, and so on and so on, while some literary clock ticks away, judging the value of every passed second.
JW: And I think we’d both agree that the value of the degree goes beyond a credential for getting a teaching job.
PG: An MFA degree’s best value is indefinable. At Illinois, our students participate in workshops, attend literature classes, teach, and also learn editorial skills working on Ninth Letter. But what I hope eventually shakes out is that a student then goes out in the world with a workshop brewing in his or her head, a circle of internalized voices10 that will always be there to help and cajole when the page or screen is blank.
JW: You also teach in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency program. How long have you done this?
PG: Ah, interesting backstory there. In the ‘90s I wrote a lot of book reviews for the Chicago Tribune; every few months Larry Kart, the books editor, would call me and say, “How about this or that book?” And I’d mull it over and reply, “Hmmm, that sounds good,” or “Nope, that person is a friend, can’t write an unbiased review,” etc. Once he called and said, “I have two books for you to consider,” and when he pitched the first, I said, “Sure, I’ll review that one.” But before he could hang up I remembered that he’d mentioned he had two books, so I asked about that second one, and as he described a novel by a Canadian writer I’d never heard of, Douglas Glover, I decided I’d prefer that assignment. Well, I loved the book, The Life and Times of Captain N., and my review was so enthusiastic the Tribune ran it on the cover of their Sunday book review section. A few weeks later, Doug wrote me a nice note, and soon enough we were corresponding fairly regularly, exchanging books, developing a friendship by mail. Then in 2002 he invited me to give a reading at Vermont College—where he’d begun teaching—for their winter residency, and only then did we finally meet, after 10 years of correspondence. Anyway, the folks at Vermont seemed to tolerate me well enough, and later gave me a chance to teach at the following residency, the summer of 2003. Happily, I’ve been part of the program there ever since.
I often think, though, of that moment’s hesitation on the phone when I asked to hear about the second book the editor at the Tribune had forgotten to pitch. That one little question led me to the reading of a novel I still deeply admire, a good friend, a reading gig and a teaching job. Our lives sometimes turn on so little.
That’s a good story about book reviewing. On the other hand, William Gass hasn’t been so friendly since my review of his novel The Tunnel.
JW: It sounds like you’re talking about fate or luck as an integral part of advancement, or success. I often think about the same things. You weren’t the only teacher of Rhetoric 144 at the time I took it at Illinois, and yet I wound up in your class, which led to you recommending Bob Butler and McNeese State, which led to…the list is endless.
PG: Last year I participated in an in-house panel for our MFA program on life after graduation, along with Jodee Stanley, the editor of Ninth Letter, and our program’s associate director, Steve Davenport. Though neither of us had talked beforehand about what we’d say, a theme seemed to emerge: the combination of experience and opportunity. When you’re building a career, don’t hesitate to take on any task, whether it’s a crummy teaching job, or pocket change for a book review, or an unpaid editorial internship, whatever. Just accumulate experience, because eventually the surprise of an opportunity will come your way—this is the luck or fate part—and you’d better be prepared when it arrives.
Take fiction and poetry and memoir and journalism and novels and stories and plays and so on and do what you will with them. The best writers have a necessary myopia when it comes to categories. JW: What’s different between teaching in a low-res atmosphere vs. a traditional program?
PG: A 10-day summer or winter residency at Vermont College is like one of those late-19th-century Chautauquas, an intense gathering whose calendar is packed with readings, craft lectures, and panels, and you simply live and breathe literary life from morning till night. There’s almost nothing like that atmosphere in a traditional program, which is more steady-as-you-go from week to week. The low-res program also emphasizes writing above all else, and my Vermont graduate advisees churn out and mail off to me about 150 pages of work during the course of a semester. Which in part, I suppose, explains why Vermont graduates over the past 27 years have gone on to publish something like 650 books—Wally Lamb and Mark Doty are among those success stories. Our “high-res” program at Illinois, on the other hand, offers writing workshops, teaching, and literary editing in equal measure; it’s a little more like a professional degree, our students training in three related fields, and though our program is quite young, many of our graduates are doing well in all three areas, already beginning to publish books, or publishing in magazines like Zoetrope and One Story, being honored with an O. Henry Award, getting a tenure-track job or a prestigious editorial fellowship.
Another difference is that, in general, many low-res students tend to be older than you’ll usually find in a traditional program. They have jobs or careers, have established families, with years or sometimes even decades of various adventures behind them, and they usually come to the program with a project they’ve long wanted to write or complete. They have life experience and they crave the craft skills to sculpt that experience. In a traditional program, the students—again, in general—tend to be younger, and are developing the craft of writing that they will then further apply as they go out into the world and continue to live their lives.
I highly recommend both program types, by the way; the choice for either one depends on what you’re looking for and where you are in your life.
JW: When I first started seeing the proliferation of low-res programs, I have to admit, my first reaction was that it was starting to look like a bit of a scam, a way for universities to up the cash flow by taking advantage of writing hopefuls, but really, given that most students aren’t interested in a teaching career and doing it while also working a bill-paying job helps keep from accumulating debt, it seems like a good thing, a place to go for those that want feedback and conversation where you know the people doing the mentoring are serious and accredited.
PG: Yet these distinctions between the two sorts of programs always blur around the edges. One of my colleagues at Illinois, LeAnne Howe (author of the novel about Native American baseball and time travel, Miko Kings), received her MFA from Vermont, and she and I are always trying to brainstorm touches of Vermont into our program here—craft lectures, a panel on the differences between writing and film, and so forth. Our current director, Audrey Petty, is initiating this March a three-day writers’ festival for our graduate and undergraduate students, filled with readings by faculty and outside writers, panels and craft talks—our own mini-residency. At the same time, Vermont gives teaching and mentoring opportunities to former students returning for a residency as graduate assistants, and former students also help out or serve as editors with Vermont’s literary magazine, Hunger Mountain.
That blurring is all for the good, I think, and especially so in writing itself. David Shields says in his new book, Reality Hunger, that “genre is a minimum-security prison.” I say upgrades are always available when it comes to boxing yourself in, right up to solitary confinement. That’s one of the dangers a writer faces when trying to maintain a career that lasts, as you—ahem—would say, “over 30 years.”
One of the greatest lessons I ever learned came from my other graduate school mentor, Frederic Tuten, a wonderful and yet still underrated writer. I was so impressed by the way he led his workshop, diving into everyone’s work with equal enthusiasm, no matter how different the style or content. His ecumenical spirit influenced me greatly in my teaching, in my reading—and also in my writing, I like to think.
The website Smyles & Fish has an article on Fred’s work, especially his recent short stories that, though filled with surreal invention, he considers “self-portraits,” or what Iris Smyles calls “an auto-biography of the imagination.” I love how she elaborates on this point: “His fictional creations, the manifestations of his soul, his worlds, suggest his existence through their existence. The story, any story, is thus an extension of the self. Fiction is a protracted self-portrait, he seems to be saying with this latest collection. Fiction is the shroud over a body laid bare.”
Fiction as nonfiction, invention as autobiography. Of course! Take fiction and poetry and memoir and journalism and novels and stories and plays and so on and do what you will with them. I think the best writers have a necessary myopia when it comes to categories. The edges should be blurry. You know this very well, having written a short story in the shape of a slaughterhouse inspector’s confidential report.
In the past few days I’ve picked up two books that promise their own versions of this blurriness, and I’ve added them to my growing What to Read Next pile. One is the novel Lamb Bright Saviors by Robert Vivian. Though he spent years working as a successful playwright, he now writes primarily lyric essays and fiction. His novels move through voice, the crazed monologues of a series of haunted characters, and this work seems to me to be clearly influenced by his years writing plays. The other book is Sayonara, Gangsters, by Genichiro Takahashi, which caught my eye because of Jonathan Safran Foer’s blurb, which mainly expresses his chagrin at not being able to describe why he loves this novel. Hey, I say, give me more of that.
I remember Ann Beattie and Don Barthelme’s friendship, and how much they admired each other’s work. At the time, buckets of critical prose were being spilled over the “death of meta-fiction” and the “rise of minimalism,” but as far as two of the greatest practitioners of their respective “genres” felt, such distinctions meant nothing. The quality and individuality of the writing, the depth of vision is everything.
Philip Graham is the author of The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon (University of Chicago Press). To see book tour dates and keep up with his latest work, visit his blog.
1JW: I can’t even take credit/blame for the Tejo/Tagus issue since it was likely a change initiated by our copy editor at the time, Ed Page, a very exacting and accurate man. I’m sure for consistency’s sake, the name should’ve been in English. (PG: Well, my reply is that Tejo is a consistently beautiful word, and Tagus is not!) ↩
2PG: Among them are The Millions, Words Without Borders and Brevity. ↩
3PG: Some of them are Zoetrope, Tin House, McSweeney’s, One Story, and, dare I add, Ninth Letter? ↩
4PG: Including The Millions, Fiction Writers Review, The Complete Review’s Literary Saloon, and Robert Birnbaum’s Our Man in Boston column for The Morning News. ↩
5JW: This is a little ancient history as well, back in 1998. My brain had been fallow for about six months, but then I wrote an odd little thing about a guy being interviewed by a career counselor who also moonlighted as an Ultimate Fighter. I posted it on the Zoetrope site for comment and two of the first reviews were from a couple of people named Roy Kesey and Pia Ehrhardt, each of whom has gone on to great success as a writer, but more importantly, has become a permanent fixture as someone I can rely on to help me with my own work. These are people I’ve met in person exactly once. Their enthusiasm and insight into that first story I submitted sort of refreshed my flagging belief in myself; I got up the courage to send it to Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s and it was published in the third issue. (Under the ridiculous title, “The Circus Elephants Look Sad Because They Are.”) I guess that was my New Yorker moment. ↩
6PG: These days there are some lovely sites that offer writing advice and professional news, like Practicing Writing, Mira’s List, the NewPages blog, Remembering English—oh, the list goes on and on. ↩
7JW: Teddy Wayne, Mike Sacks, Wendy Molyneux, Jason Roeder, Sarah Walker, John Moe, Dan Kennedy, Kate Hahn, Ellie Kemper, G. Xavier Robillard, John Hodgman, Ben Greenman, Kyle Minor, and probably quite a few I’m missing had their first, or among their earliest, publishing successes on the site. ↩
8JW: I also have gone out and purchased hard-copy versions of books I’ve initially read on the Kindle since I enjoyed them so much I wanted the physical object close to me. The most recent one was Model Home by Eric Puchner. ↩
9And the people who work there! I have a superb editor, David Brent; my copy editor, Ruth Goring, is a published poet; and my publicist, Levi Stahl, has his own literary blog, is an editor of Quarterly Conversation, and he and Ed Park have collaborated on the wonderful Invisible Library, a gathering place for books that don’t exist but are mentioned in other books—Poets & Writers recently did a piece on them. ↩
10JW: The key to this from my perspective is the “internalized” part of the equation. One of the things I struggled with the most was allowing other voices too much space in my head to mess with my writing. It probably took a good year or more for everything to settle down and get fully back to listening to myself. At some point, I think every writer needs to abandon the workshop and just commit to going back to shouting into the void. ↩