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Birnbaum v.

Charles Baxter

The author covers topics such as his new book, Saul and Patsy, Chekhov’s medical career, politics, Minnesota, and what it’s like to have your work made into film.

Author Charles Baxter recently returned to the Minneapolis area to teach at the University of Minnesota after 30 years in Ann Arbor, 13 spent teaching in the University of Michigan’s MFA program. His first collection of stories, Harmony of the World was published in 1984 and has been followed by three novels. First Light, Shadow Play, and The Feast of Love (a finalist for a National Book Award in 2000) and three story collections, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Believers. Baxter has also published a book of poetry, Imaginary Paintings and a book of essays, Burning Down the House. His latest novel, Saul and Patsy, revisits a couple, Saul and Patsy, who have appeared in some of Baxter’s earlier stories. A recent New York Times profile of Baxter featured the headline, ‘Quiet Midwest Novelist Is Making a Little Noise.’

The key here being, of course, the patronizing implication (which the writer, Emily Eakin, disingenuously distances herself from) that narrative from the so-called ‘fly-over zone’ might be surprising in its originality and craft.


* * *

Robert Birnbaum: I asked you last night at your reading about your favorite music because I am aware that your stories are peppered with musical references. In Saul and Patsy there is one that stands out—Saul’s observation that Thelonious Monk has a particular attitude toward daylight. Which I found puzzling. What did you mean by that?

Charles Baxter: Monk is more a musician of the nighttime, of evening. His music tends to be either pensive or manic. I thought that Saul, who was listening to Monk, had misinterpreted him. I thought I had reduced the number of musical references in my work by the time I wrote Saul and Patsy. I used to bestrew my fiction with them. I’ve been trying to put myself on a diet of that.

RB: You also mentioned last night that you suspend whatever rules you have about writing in the first draft. So it’s possible that in the first draft of Saul and Patsy there were multitudes of musical allusions.

CB: There used to be in the stories. My first book of stories, Harmony of the World, is loaded down with them. There are musicians all through that book. And the title itself is a reference to an opera by Paul Hindemith on the life of Johannes Kepler. It must be that I’ve been thinking about music so long that the references start appearing automatically.

RB: Edmund White wrote something in the New York Times’s ‘Writers on Writing’ series about how he was always listening to music when he writes. You don’t but when you are alluding to a piece of music such as a Ray Charles song or [Carl] Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, do you have a feeling in mind that you are interjecting in the story? Or is just a—

CB: I do. I do. I think those pieces must have been playing in my head while I was writing. I have no executive abilities at music at all. If you put me in front of a keyboard, I can do nothing. In fact, one of my recurring dreams is that I am off-stage, dressed in a tuxedo, with a conductor. And we are about to go on, and I am trying to explain to him that I can’t play the piano, even though I am there as the pianist for a concerto. He says, ‘Charlie’—this is in the dream—‘You’re so modest.’ I say, ‘No, I really can’t play the piano.’ He taps his watch and says, ‘It’s time to go on.’ Anyway, yes, I am like a musician in the sense that there is always music going through my head. Particularly when I am writing. Those references often appear because that’s the music I am hearing.

RB: Yeah. So, for instance, when Saul and Patsy have a car accident and there is a reference to a Ray Charles song, it’s not there to indicate a specific emotional coloration but because that’s what you are thinking about?

CB: That’s what I am thinking about. Those lines, ‘Unchain, my heart/Let me go my way’ were going through my head.

RB: There is an epigraph by Johannes Brahms and one by Paul Simon. That’s a pretty common coupling, I think.

CB: [laughs]

RB: Simon will probably be playing some Brahms on his reunion tour with Art Garfunkel. But, again musical allusions…

CB: The Brahms reference is from a letter he wrote to Vincenz Lachner. Lachner was a musician who had the score to Brahms’s Second Symphony, the first movement, which goes on in a standard sonata development style until this very odd cadence with trombones. Lachner didn’t understand it at all. Didn’t know what it was doing there. Quite a few of Brahms’s friends were puzzled by the passage. Lachner wrote to Brahms, and Brahms wrote back and said that indeed it was a strange passage and that he had tried to manage the entire movement without trombones but, ‘Black birds fly around our heads. I am a profoundly melancholy man. And I must I have my trombones.’ Which is for me a wonderful passage but also a warning to the reader. That I am going to have my trombones, too.

RB: This might have been a digression later in our conversation, but do you do much reading of correspondence between musicians? What are the circumstances under which you would read the Brahms-Lachner letters?

CB: I had, I think, first read the correspondence in Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms [Johannes Brahms: A Biography]. It may have been in an essay by Alex Ross. I hadn’t gotten my hands on the volumes of Brahms’s letters, so it was secondhand. I do love the correspondence between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmanstahl. That’s a wonderful book—the back and forth between the two.

RB: I’m more interested in having a correspondence than reading them. Do people still do that? Do you write to people?

CB: I write letters on paper to people who don’t use email. I think I have two or three good friends left who don’t use email, and I still write actual letters to them.

RB: Are you conscious that you are writing something different? Is it different, what and how you write in a letter than what you put in an email?

CB: Now that I think about it, another wonderful collection of letters is the correspondence between William Maxwell and Frank O’Connor, the short story writer [The Happiness of Getting It Down Right]. He wrote many wonderful stories, among which ‘Guests of the Nation’ is probably the best known one. What’s wonderful about reading correspondence is a kind of access to intimacy between two people. There is a slightly more fluid and informal means of address that you find in these letters. I do wonder about this kind of intimacy. I wonder if a certain kind of emotional or spiritual intimacy is lost in email. I think so.

Some of the most interesting dialogue is that in which the characters are either not listening, or listening selectively, or are hearing things that haven’t actually been said. It’s not as if great dialogue represents the care with which people listen and respond to each other.

RB: If I were to judge by the preponderance of my email (non-spam), it’s barely literate. Even from people I know to be smart and articulate. It’s just rushed through.

CB: It looks rushed. Email is all about speed. And the letters look as if you, the recipient, are not quite as important as the job of getting the note out of the way.

RB: [laughs] It’s definitely a stroke off the to-do list. Last evening I asked you if your presentation was reconfigured for different circumstances. You said that it was. Could this novel have been reconfigured or reorganized?

CB: I think that most writers looking back at their books often feel a sense of contingency. Once you have finished a book, you usually feel that that’s the way it had to be. While you are writing it, it doesn’t feel that way. The formal properties of the work often seem to be variable and fluid, to use that word again. And if I had outlined the novel before I began writing it, it might very well have taken a different form.

RB: It’s a wonderful story, well told. Is it possible it could have been a well-told story in another configuration?

CB: Well…

RB: Maybe that is a meaningless question?

CB: It’s not meaningless, it’s only…it’s difficult to answer because we only know about the trip on the trolley we actually got on. And it’s impossible to say where the trolleys we didn’t get on would have taken us. So, I [pause] …having written the book, I now feel that those are the actions that Saul and Patsy had to take. That was what Gordy Himmelman had to do. Those were the events that occurred within the community after the calamity that Gordy Himmelman brought on. But, when I began working on those stories, when I began working on the book based on the stories, I had no idea about the story’s direction.

RB: I don’t want to belabor this but why are you so sure you are not going to revisit these people, these characters? I have heard other writers say that they are done with a story. Julian Barnes with Talking it Over, which he revisited with Love, etc. some 10 years later. He now will not foreclose on another installment of these characters’ lives. Richard Ford said he was done with Frank Bascombe after Independence Day (which is a continuation of The Sportswriter).

CB: I would not revisit them because I am no longer as interested in them as I once was.

RB: Today. At this moment.

CB: Today. I don’t find them, now that I have written about them at the length that I have, as interesting for me as they once were. [long pause] There is a certain kind of inner resonance that I feel about characters when I know that I am about to write about them. I feel full of them. And the process of writing often feels like an emptying out of that fullness: the knowledge I have of them and also the feelings I am going through on their behalf. I feel as if that’s gone now with them. That it was not gone before, but it is gone now.

RB: Did you feel any sense of risk in writing a Jewish character? Setting aside a basic premise that writers do that, they write about anyone and anything…I can imagine some one saying, ‘What does Charles Baxter, some white guy from Minnesota, think he is doing writing a character that is an East Coast Jewish guy?’

CB: Somebody asked me that very question at one of my bookstore readings. It wasn’t as blunt as, ‘What do you know about Jewish people?’ but it came close.

RB: That’s not what I am asking you, by the way.

CB: I know. I did think about this, of course. To begin with—I am Saul.

RB: [laughs]

CB: I know this guy. From top to bottom. He’s as a good a stand-in for me as any character I can think of right now. And his Jewishness is also a part of me as long as I am writing it. The fact that my wife is Jewish and comes from a secular family of mostly University of Chicago academics is entirely secondary to the initial feeling that I have of complete identification with Saul—when I began these stories and this novel.

RB: One thing that troubled me about Saul—and I suppose that you can’t account for this as everyone’s reaction is likely to be different—Gordy represented a greater threat than Saul reacts to. I don’t think I would have ever tolerated him in the way that Saul does.

CB: Gordy is a threat, and in some of the early drafts of the book I have both Saul and Patsy reaching for the phone to call the sheriff. But it also seemed to me that if Saul does take his teaching seriously, if he does take his ideas such as they are, being a person who is going to do something about the problem of—he thinks—stupidity…

RB: As you put it, ‘undoing the dumbing.’

CB: Undoing the dumbness that’s been done—

RB: [laughs]

CB:—then he can’t call the authorities the minute that Gordy starts to do something to him or against him. His first thought is that he’ll try to do something for Gordy, and when a boy like that shows up at your doorstep you do in fact have a great many choices. And Saul does his best. I’ve been asked by a couple of people why Saul doesn’t do more for him. I know why Saul doesn’t do more. He has a child of his own. He has his preoccupations. Gordy is one among many. What would he do?

RB: You referred to Gordy as being under-parented. That sounds like an understatement. He has no parents and his ostensible guardian is worthless…

CB: Brenda is hardly there in his life at all. Gordy’s father has taken off for parts unknown and his mother has died in a trailer fire. Gordy is completely on his own, and he is under-parented, as I thought many of the children in the second half of the book were. I may have mentioned last night, one of the books that was on my mind as I wrote this one was Frankenstein. I was thinking of the way that Victor Frankenstein’s creature doesn’t begin as a monster. He becomes a monster partly because Victor Frankenstein doesn’t acknowledge him as his creation and also because the creature has been exiled from all domestic affection. So there are a number of references both to Frankenstein and to ‘Bartleby [the Scrivener].’ Because I thought that Gordy was not a monster, but what he wanted was acknowledgement from somebody, by someone. Of what? His being, his humanity.

RB: Saul is not particularly wounded by Gordy’s nascent anti-Semitism since it appears Gordy has no idea what he is saying –

CB: Right–

RB: Which is good for Saul. I thought I read somewhere in the novel a recapitulation of some of the notions in your essay ‘Burning Down the House.’ Am I confused?

CB: A recap of?

RB: Ideas about personal responsibility and the dysfunctional narrative and the passive voice.

CB: It’s possible. If we were to go back to Gordy for a moment, what I’d say is that there are a lot of kids and young adults around like that. And part of the challenge anybody feels in dealing with such people is that if they were lovable you could easily find a way of enfolding them and taking care of them. The problem with a human being like Gordy is that it’s not the notes [he writes] or his habit of showing up on your front lawn. It’s that he’s blank and somewhat unlovable so that whatever response you find for him has to begin almost from a point of principle rather than a point of emotion.

RB: Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is about a mother’s account of the before and after of her teenage son’s murderous rampage at his high school, begins with an epigram by Erma Bombeck, ‘A child needs your love most when he deserves it least.’

CB: Yes, that’s exactly right. It is fairly late in the book before anyone discovers anything about Gordy that would give you a path into his heart, to his soul. It’s the moment when Patsy has forced herself on Brenda Bagley and gets into Gordy’s bedroom where she sees on the wall along with the comic heroes, the beehives, and the picture of the baby, Patsy’s daughter, Mary Esther. That’s there simply to suggest that there is a whole side of Gordy that nobody ever saw. What he presents to the world is a kind of boy defense

RB: I am fascinated by what seems almost obvious but notin those kinds of situations you do have to deal from principle. There is nothing to grab onto except you have to maintain that everyone is worthy of some attention and acknowledgement.

CB: Exactly. It’s principle. It is not this spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. It has to come from whatever is left of humanism.

RB: I am trying to imagine a map of the U.S. that would show the distribution of psycho-pharmaceuticals

CB: [laughs]

RB:—where the heaviest concentrations of usage are. [Both laugh] I don’t know how that would be graphically rendered.

CB: Well, some of the places where I have done time have been close to rural areas where psycho-pharmaceuticals are manufactured because they are so out of the way nobody knows these places are doing what they are doing…

RB: What are some of the out-of-the-way places? You were in rural Michigan? In Albany?

CB: Buffalo. I was in Buffalo for four years. I was in rural Michigan immediately after I graduated from college. We have cabin in northern Minnesota on Lake Superior, north of a town called Two Harbors. So these places are all familiar to me.

RB: How does it feel to be back home [in Minnesota]?

CB: I like it. I like the Twin Cities. I like the feeling of the place. It seems to be about the right size. It has a very active musical, theater-arts, literary life.

RB: And some significant independent publishing.

CB: Graywolf.

RB: Coffee House Press and Milkweed.

CB: They are all there. And a fairly active writing community. It feels good to be back.

RB: I’ve never heard a disparaging word about Minnesota. And on a number of occasions some pro athletes [Terry Steinbach and Kirby Puckett] supposedly took less money to play there.

CB: I think that’s right. I wouldn’t be able to say exactly what people find so congenial about it. It is true that the city looks very unusual when you drive people around because of the number of lakes right in the city. That combined with the fact that the business community has, for many, many years, felt it was important just to keep up the community by donating large sums of money for various artistic enterprisesthe theater and the museums, dance performances. And so it has a very lively cultural life as a result. There are all of the problems that any city faces, but there are these added features of the parks and the rest of it.

RB: I like that the large cities in the heartland are surrounded by large expanses of much less-populated areas and the cities seem to tend less to claustrophobia.

CB: Those open areas are, of course, being colonized by the suburbs but one of the qualities of Minnesota that I used to likeit may be that it is disappearingthat has always meant a great deal to me is the political progressivism. Which is one part of the heritage of the Farmer Labor party in Minneapolis. Those open spaces were being farmed by people who were politically very active. And I live in a neighborhood in which are lawn signs up that still say, ‘Wellstone lives.’

Charles Baxter, shot by R. Birnbaum
Charles Baxter, photos by Robert Birnbaum

RB: It’s so odd though. What happened in that senatorial election? The Democrats ran Mondale but he was defeated by a conservative.

CB: Norm Coleman. The usual explanation is that the memorial service for Paul Wellstone turned very aggressively political.

RB: Right, right.

CB: It turned into a political rally. And voters who were undecided were offended by the mixture of whatgrieving and political profit taking. It was that rally that is said to have defeated Mondale.

RB: Strange. The impression I have is that what convinces people is a relentless repetition of a message. It’s hard to see one incident making the difference. Schwarzenegger is governor because he has ‘brand recognition’ and nothing was able to penetrate that.

CB: Yes. The campaign of Wellstone against Coleman was so close and what you would have expected to happen following Wellstone’s deathI’m floundering around here. I don’t know.

RB: One of those inexplicable things. Have you revisited the essay ‘Burning Down the House’?

CB: The dysfunctional narrative one? I have

RB: By the way, another musical reference.

CB: Is it?

RB: The Talking Heads song.

CB: Oh, right. I wanted to quote that song as an epigraph to the book. But the band was in litigation, so I couldn’t quote from the song. I have been writing other essays since then, which have, in one way or another, some points of reference to those earlier essays. I wrote an essay about dialogue for example called ‘The Elephant in the Living Room.’ Some of the most interesting dialogue is that in which the characters are either not listening, or listening selectively, or are hearing things that haven’t actually been said. It’s not as if great dialogue represents the care with which people listen and respond to each other. It’s much more often the case that good dialogue in plays and novels calls your attention to the way people are not listening. Or are listening in light of their own needs at the time. In some ways, I think that is associated with the dysfunctional narrative essay because both of these phenomena are about what people choose to ignore. Or can’t or won’t take responsibility for.

What’s wonderful about reading correspondence is a kind of access to intimacy between two people. There is a slightly more fluid and informal means of address that you find in these letters.

RB: Also it implicit in ‘Burning Down the House’ is the notion that literaturewriting, storiesdoes in fact have much to do with life, it is not a disconnected, effete preoccupation. It mirrors and affects human activity as we are living. I fear that a good part ot the world looks at fiction and story-telling as if it were at best a mild diversion and at worst useless.

CB: In these essays and in the essays that I am writing now I wanted to start as a point of reference from some activity that people actually engage in. I just finished an essay that is going to be in the Believer.

RB: In the November issue?

CB: I think so. I’ve written an essay about how most writers now don’t describe faces anymore, either as an index to character in the way the 19th-century novelists tended to do, or as a dramatic inflexion. You are more likely to get descriptions of clothes or body language than you are of faces. I just wanted to ask myself why.

RB: Some of the great scenes that I recall from movies were where an actor said something with eye movement.

CB: Yes.

RB: Some facial gesture that might have lasted a nanosecond.

CB: The Quiet American is a good example, the way Michael Caine uses his eyes in his acting. And two of Charlotte Rampling’s most recent films, Under the Sand and The Swimming Pool, are all eye acting. In the essay, I was particularly interested in what Paula Fox does in some of her novels. She likes to crowd her characters, get them into very narrow spaces, put them under a great deal of stress so that they are constantly having to look at each others’ faces to see what the subtext is of the remark that each one has just made.

RB: That doesn’t seem to be a contemporary concern. I don’t see people looking at each other in conversation. Or if they are it’s as if there are mirrors on the inside of their eyeballs. They may be looking but not seeing.

CB: Sounds like a culture of narcissism, doesn’t it? [laughs]

RB: Oh well…Do you get angry about the state of the world and the state of the union?

CB: I’m so fit to be tied these days.

RB: [laughs] Sorry.

Many voters in this country have poor reality testing. Something that was once posited as being make-believe has become for many, substantial and real.

CB: I have been thinking that come next year it’s more important for me to be working politically than to be working on another book. That’s how angry I am. I have friends who have been talking lately about other countries they would like to move to.

RB: In Saul and Patsy, you refer to the president as the ‘Lord of Misrule.’ Is that applicable to any president of the late 20th century?

CB: I wrote that passage specifically about George W. Bush. ‘Everybody in this country is gun crazy from the president on down,’ is the line that I think follows that. I was thinking of our current guy-in-chief.

RB: What’s your thinking about how guys like he and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan are elected? Is it all the drama of good TV marketing?

CB: It is partly the invasion of politics by show business. I’m not sure that anybody has thought enough about that problem. It also has something to do with ‘hypothetical masculinity.’ What I mean by that is that to a certain degree the posing has taken over from the substance of what I imagine true manhood to be. It’s the equivalent of a Hummer driving down a side street. A vehicle like that has no function in civilian life.

RB: [laughs heartily]

CB: In a sane society it would be laughed off the streets. It’s entirely an example of hypothetical masculinity. What it presents is a theatricalization of masculine life. Certainly Schwarzenegger, and certainly Bush are part of this. Bush who was in the Air National Guard.

RB: Sort of.

CB: Sort of. And seems to have gone AWOL for a year. And then [he] dresses up in a flight suit with a kind of cod piecethat’s theatricalization of masculinity.

RB: I understand the intent of those displays. I don’t understand how people buy it. I don’t really fault the handlers. Their world is about marketing. But the fact that people accept that crap is deflating.

CB: It suggests that many voters in this country have poor reality testing. Something that was once posited as being make-believe has become for many, substantial and real. Or else the boundary between these realms has dissolved in some way that many of us are not entirely able to definewhy it has happened or howit’s just that a make-believe world has installed itself in the political realm. That’s why I think of it as hyperbolic and hypothetical masculinity.

RB: I am surprised Commander-in-Chief Bush didn’t grab his crotch when he got out of the jet.

CB: [silence]

If book culture and reading gets any more marginalized, sooner or later a marginalized population of young people will discover it all over again.

RB: I want to return to the suggestion that you think it might be more important for you to be politically active than to be writing. What does that say about your sense of the value of literature and what it can accomplish against the ambition of improving or saving the world?

CB: If I had an idea for a book that was causing fever dreams, I would probably toss aside the political and begin writing it, but having written this book and having been in public for the last couple of months, I haven’t been able to daydream my way toward a new one. So what seems to be compelling to me is the political struggle, even though in that I am just another possible political worker. With these books I really know what I am doingor I know what I am doing as well as I can.

RB: How possessed are you by the idea that there is something about literature that perhaps could make the world better, save the worldthe idea that literature has some great moral impact?

CB: Literature does change the world, but it does it subversively, it does it invisibly. I like to think that Chekov has helped more people as a writer than he would have had he gone on to practice medicine instead of writing his plays and stories. And in the same way, now and then, I hear from readers who have been helped getting out of clinical depression by reading something of mine

RB: That must make you feel good.

CB: It does. It does…and by people who have been cheered and heartened in some way by reading something of mine. So then I’ve thought this is a form of changing the world. It may not involve bricks and mortar. It is a change.

RB: How long have you been teaching?

CB: Off and on for 32 years.

RB: Has there been something that you have noticed about your students over that period of time that heartens you or depresses you. Or both?

CB: The heartening thing first. What I noticed at the University of Michigan was that there seemed to be a new breed of students whom I was seeing during the last five years or so who were bookish and who were using their bookishness as a new form of rebellion. Or revolt against official culture. Using their bookishness as way of saying, ‘Don’t bother me with your damn video games. No, I’m not going to watch that TV show. I’m reading.’ If book culture and reading gets any more marginalized, sooner or later a marginalized population of young people will discover it all over again. I thought I was seeing some of that. I know there’s an argument that something has happened to all of our attention spansthat long books are difficult for people to read. I don’t think that’s true at all. Neal Stephenson and his immense books…

RB: And William Vollmann’s 3,000-page book. And there’s a new translation of Don Quixote that’s been published [904 pp].

CB: It just seems to me that there is less interest in the novel of manners and in the immense novels of manners in the old style. It does seem as if the long texts that young people are willing to read have to do with societal, cultural forms that are in a state of fever or crisis.

RB: I found it odd that a review seemed to conflate you and Jonathan Franzen

CB: It was the review in the New York Times, Eric Weinberger’s review. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at. He made the reference then said it was unfair and didn’t extend it by saying what he meant by it. There was a suggestion that here and there there were observations made about the culture in Saul and Patsy that seemed to come out of [Jonathan] Franzen. But I have been doing that for as long as I have been writing. So I wasn’t sure what he meant.

I like to think that Chekov has helped more people as a writer than he would have had he gone on to practice medicine instead of writing his plays and stories.

RB: Do you pay much attention to reviews?

CB: I’m in a kind of Zen position now. My wife said to me, ‘I have a review from the L.A. Times, do you want me to read it?’ and I said, ‘No.’ I do sometimes find that I ignore good reviews and obsess over the bad ones, trying to figure out whether they have a pointwhether there was something that was missing in the vision of the book that I should have seen but somehow overlooked.

RB: As opposed to picking out some trustworthy commentators?

CB: I’ll give you an example of a good somewhat-mixed review. In Book, the magazine that Barnes and Noble puts out, Sven Birkerts had a review of my book. He had some reservations about the last hundred pages and the direction that the book was taking. I thought that was a perfectly legitimate question to raise. But when a reviewer seem not to have read very carefully or to have an a priori agenda that has been brought to bear on their criticism, then I feel I can learn nothing from this.

RB: You’re aware of the Believer’s stance on literary criticism?

CB: I have always had the sense that if you are going to write a genuinely unfavorable review of a book you need about twice the length that you need to write a good reviewsimply so that you can establish your points and make them with some coherence. Literary conversationsgive and takehas always had snarkery in it. Heidi [Julavits, editor of the Believer] wants everybody to play fair. But this is the world. I think there is a certain amount of constructive destructive criticism. You just have to know how to do it. If everybody is being nice to everybody else, nothing is going to be accomplished. The worst kind of snarkery is pushed on us by the tendency, in at least the popular press, to create dualisms. Yes, no. Thumbs up, thumbs down. One star or four stars. Or what a lot of magazines do: They give it a gradeas if the work of four or five years could be reduced to something schoolish. That is a manifestly mistaken notion.

RB: And there seems to be so little respect for the effort. Not that effort alone warrants immunity from criticism.

CB: What it presupposes is that artists are entertainers. We’ve hired them to come out and do their little shows for us, and if we don’t like the show we can give them a thumbs down. Or give them one star and tell them to get off the stage so we can get the next harlequin onstage. It comes from notions of art as amusement.

RB: I wonder how much of that Stalinist or Maoist anti-art mentality‘When I hear about art or culture, I reach for my gun’is a part of that leveler mentality? That it is disreputable and decadent to ascribe artistic qualities to things.

CB: I think that quotation, I want to say it’s from Goebbels. But I’m not sure…maybe Breton. [Actually it’s Hanns Johst, but the quote has also been frequently attributed to Goering and Goebbels—ed.]

RB: Same totalitarian nightmare.

CB: We are wandering into dangerous territory here because there is still plenty of art out there of considerable complexity, and some of it is in mass media. So it isn’t as ifI think it’s as if we are as a group or a people or culture in an anti-art stance. Do I? [pause] I don’t know…

RB: Tough question.

CB: Yeah.

RB: Were you done explicating the plusses and minuses of your students? You were talking about the bookishness that was being used as tactic of rebellion.

CB: There is a minus, and that’s very close to what we are talking about now. That is, a kind of in-bred impatience. Feeling that if it doesn’t work right away, I’m not going to give it much time. That might come out of an end of the world feeling, of time running out. I don’t know why so manywell, I mean I do know why so many young people feel thatparticularly in a time of economic distress for them. But it’s noticeable.

RB: Not an era of great expectations.

CB: It is not. Or a sense that there may be much of a future.

RB: You’ve alluded to the limbo The Feast of Love is in, regarding being made into a movie. What I took you to be saying is that the screenplay adaptations would be versions 1.1 or 1.2 instead of something different.

CB: The truth is I have tried to take as little interest in it as I can because it’s been so clear that I really don’t have much power over it, except if I wanted to put a stop to all of it.

RB: Do you have the expectation that in the hands of another artist that it would be rendered in a way that sustains your vision of whatever medium they are working in?

CB: I really don’t have that expectation. I would assume that someone who picks up the book and writes a screenplay for it would create his or her own version. It’s simply a piece of light that has been refracted in a different way at that time. Also, for me anyway, it’s just a distraction from my own work. And that’s odd, because when I was much younger I was interested in the movies. I wanted to write them. I wanted to be involved in moviemaking. That’s long since passed.

RB: You must have met some people who are involved in moviemaking.

CB: Yes. And I realized that I didn’t have the right temperament for it.

RB: When you see films that are based on a piece of fiction, what do you think about?

CB: Sometimes I think about how faithful or closely the work has been adaptedmost of the times I am just sitting there and thinking, ‘Is this taking me away? Is it a good movie?’ That’s what I thought when I saw In the Bedroom. I thought, ‘This is a perfectly good movie. And it began with the Dubus story and let’s see where it goes.’ There are other kinds of movies, most of them independent projects, and I think, ‘This has the sensibility of a good novel.’ There was a movie that came out last year called Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. It’s episodic. It’s thematically organized. It’s very smart and very beautiful. I didn’t think I could have written it but I thought the sensibility in this movie was close to mine. When I saw Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park I knew it was a free adaptation but I was so fascinated that I read Jane Austen’s book over again to see what she had taken and what she had left behind. I think it’s often that way. When you see a movie, you go back to the source to see what happened to it. The night I had seen In the Bedroom, I took down my copy of Andre Dubus’s stories and reread that story to see what I thought of it and where it had started from.

RB: I know what is meant when someone says that such and such a book can’t be made into a movie but that doesn’t sound right to me.

CB: When people say that, they’re referring to a quality of inwardness that seems to be manifested within it. Someone asked me at one of those bookstore readings, ‘What is literature?’ It wasn’t meant to be a challenging question, but the mere fact that it was asked at all suggests the increasing marginalization of the entire art. It was asked by an employee of the bookstore, who was probably in a state of fatigue or despair. My response was that literature continues to preserve our dramatic sense of inwardness and privacy in relation to the world at large. Fiction keeps that dialectic going in a way no other medium is able to, the inward response to the outward public one. From that the rubbing of the two world against each other, much great fiction arises. If fiction were entirely inward, all our novels would loom like Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t.

RB: It just occurred to me that I came to your work when I read your novel Shadow Play. I never see references to it. Is it a forgotten child?

CB: Not by me. But it does seem to be my cross-eyed child. Probably some readers found the concatenation of ecological and religious/spiritual concerns unwieldythe sense the novel gives of people and things left behind, a god who has disposed of us, while we ourselves leave behind our toxic residues. It’s a somewhat grim picture and Wyatt’s quixotic efforts to combat it were perhaps not heroic enough for some readers. Others found the novel episodic. But I put my entire heart and soul into that book, and can say that it is still in print and is sometimes taught in Urban Planning courses. Also, the Germans seemed to like itin translation it’s Schattenspieland in any case, the way a book is received, commercially or otherwise, is mostly out of the writer’s hands. You shape these books as well as you can, give up part of your life to them and send then out into the world…


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum