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Birnbaum v.

Kevin Guilfoile

Do genre writers have more fun than plain old novelists? Is it possible to embed philosophical thought in a thriller? For an all-around TMN smorgasbord, our brain in Boston chats with Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile about his new novel.

Rookie novelist Kevin Guilfoile was born in Teaneck, N.J., and has lived in Pittsburgh and upstate New York. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, worked for the Houston Astros, and moved to Chicago to work in advertising and get married (or vice versa). He has written short humor for McSweeney’s, The New Republic, Modern Humorist, the Chicago Reader and this web magazine (The Morning News), and has been a commentator for National Public Radio. His humor has been anthologized in Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney’s Humor; May Contain Nuts: A Very Loose Canon of American Humor; 101 Damnations: The Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells; and with John Warner he co-authored My First Presidency: A Scrapbook by George W Bush. His new book Cast of Shadows is his first published novel. Guilfoile lives in the Chicago area with his wife Mo and his young son Max and is at work on his second novel.

Genetic engineering already provides a fair share of hot-button issues: stem-cell research, cloning, embryo harvesting. Cast of Shadows presents an extreme and surprising use of cloning to fashion a good old page-turning thriller that for my money leaps above the cloning lit genre (think Boys from Brazil, Mr. Murder, and Seizure). Guilfoile’s sure-handed and nimble prose delivers what has been touted as a techno-thriller and in his mind a novel owing a debt to 19th-century novels. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, “What’s striking about Cast of Shadows is that Mr. Guilfoile, in his first outing as a novelist, [wrote a book] with a lot more panache than Mr. Crichton has demonstrated in many years.”

What follows is a congenial, and dare I say, informative chat with Kevin Guilfoile on writing, genre, literary influences, Chicago and, well, this and that.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

* * *


Robert Birnbaum: Kevin Guilfoile—a good Irish name.

Kevin Guilfoile: Yup.

RB: I intend to make my mark amongst your many interlocutors by laying claim to being the only one who knows where Fond du Lac [Wisc.] is.

KG: Oh my goodness!

RB: Might that be true?

KG: Very few people know—unless they are from the Midwest.

RB: Unless they are from Wisconsin.

KG: Right.

RB: [laughs] Or lower Wisconsin.

KG: Exactly.

RB: Is Cast of Shadows about cloning?
Guilfoile, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
KG: For me, no, not really. The cloning—that instance, that decision that Davis Moore makes at the beginning of the book to clone his daughter’s killer, so that one day he might be able to see his [the killer’s] face, was just the starting point for all these other ideas I was interested in exploring. These philosophical and moral and psychological and ethical ideas. And so the cloning itself was really just a device to get to these other possibilities.

RB: Sure. So when your publisher and others tout this book as a book about cloning, it doesn’t disturb you?

KG: It doesn’t bother me. Not at all. I definitely made a conscious decision to write a high-concept thriller.

RB: A techno-thriller.

KG: But I was interested in using that genre to get to these other ideas. And hopefully make the pages turn faster and also explore some of these other concepts.

RB: What’s your position on cloning?

KG: [chuckles] I have an epigraph at the beginning of the book where I warn people to not assume too much about my own opinions of any of these issues from the ones expressed in the book.

RB: Various characters express different views, so I didn’t get a clear authorial stance.

KG: I think—I hope the book is agnostic on that point. I am usually drawn—and certainly in this novel, but even when I am writing short humor—to subjects where I have ambivalence or curiosity. I am not usually drawn to subjects where I have firm opinions to begin with, because then, what’s the point of writing about it?

RB: What do you have a firm opinion on?

KG: [laughs] What do I have a firm opinion on? Not too many things, I suppose.

RB: A sign of maturity and humility.

KG: [laughs] When I was younger, in college I had all kinds of opinions—so part of the process of writing this book was to explore the possibilities we are going to be confronting in this century. I was interested in taking characters that are very much like us and people we know and putting them in this situation that you and I could never be in—maybe [a situation] somebody 100 years from now could be in—and then seeing how they react and deal with it.

RB: What did you start with for this story?

KG: The original idea—I was watching CNN or Court TV—

RB: That part I know—you started with an idea. You didn’t start with this character or a crime?

KG: There are four or five ideas that I had written down in notebooks over the years. One of them was this cloning idea. Another was this computer game where people replicate themselves. Another was this rogue religious fundamentalist—I was interested in exploring, not defending him in any way, trying to create a character like that and trying to flesh him out in way that allows him to defend himself.

RB: He seems to be the most interesting character, the most complex. I wanted to hate him—

KG: Right—

RB: Because he is a killer. But I didn’t.

KG: I agree with you. I didn’t want to just make him a black and white villain. As terrible as the things he does are. I really wanted you to, not condone what he does, but to understand.

RB: I thought the deft touch was the final scene as he is explaining his work to some true believers and he clearly took no joy out of his mission—

KG: The people who saw him as a hero considered him a hero because they didn’t have to think about the things that he was doing. When he forced them to confront the reality of what they stood for and what that meant when it was carried to its logical conclusion, he horrified them.

RB: That character had shades of the Denzel Washington character in Man on Fire.

KG: Oh, great. That’s my father’s favorite book, actually. I don’t even know if he has seen the movie yet.

RB: Washington does an impressive job of portraying a man who is haunted and tortured by his past as a black ops guy.

KG: Somewhere I read, it might have been a rule of screenwriting, I don’t know if it was actually [referring to] fiction, I remember somebody saying that “You never give your villain a soapbox, never let your villain make a speech.” I remember reading that and thinking, “That sounds like a challenge. Why not?” And so I gave Mickey a big old one to stand up on.

RB: Well, it didn’t seem didactic. Is it common for the Chicago Tribune to put a writer on the cover of the Sunday magazine?

KG: Not really, no.

RB: Does that get you restaurant seats easily now?

KG: I haven’t been home since it’s been out.

RB: It was interesting that they did that but even more so was that you are by all sorts of evidence presented, a really nice guy.

KG: Well, thanks.

RB: It may be full of shit but I was thinking if it was the New York Times Magazine I don’t think it would have stressed what a nice guy you are.

KG: [laughs] It’s funny that was one of those articles where Rick Kogan—the guy who wrote it—Knopf didn’t pitch him on that story at all. He happened to be at meeting and he was looking through a pile of advance copies and he turned it over and saw I was from Chicago and being an old-school Chicago guy, lived there all his life and been newspaper writer for 30 something, and he said, “I’m going to take this home and see what’s it’s like.” He took it home and called me the next day and said, “I love this book. I want to do a story.”

RB: Wow, there are still people like that in journalism.

KG: Oh yeah. It was great and so it was total serendipity that we ended up with that. And Rick’s a great guy—we spent a lot of time together and we have children about the same age. That whole experience was just fun.

I always thought that novelists were other people. I didn’t know what it was they had, but I just figured it was something I didn’t have. RB: You were born in Teaneck, N.J., and your dad worked for the New York Yankees?

KG: Yeah.

RB: And then he worked for the Baseball Hall of Fame and so you lived in Cooperstown?

KG: First, he left the Yankees to work for the Pirates—until about fifth grade I lived in Pittsburgh and then [we moved] to Cooperstown.

RB: And you ended up in Chicago. Do you think of yourself as a Midwesterner? Or is it even an issue?

KG: We moved around so much—I now consider myself a Midwesterner. I used to think of myself as an Easterner. I am at the point where I really love Chicago and can really see myself living there for the rest of my life. More because of the future years I am going to live there than the 13 I have lived there so far.

RB: It’s probably the one issue I am irrational about—that I keep beating like a dead pony. I have been here in the Northeast for too long and I haven’t been able to get over the, at best, benign indifference that East Coasters have about what is now called the fly-over zone—a disgusting phrase. Do people treat you differently because you are a Chicagoan?

KG: I haven’t thought about that. Umm, it’s possible. Occasionally people on the coast look at people from the Midwest as a curiosity, almost. But in general, I don’t think so.

RB: That’s because you are such a nice guy, you don’t have those kinds of sensitivities.

KG: Maybe it’s because nowadays everybody is from somewhere else and maybe those distinctions are dwindling. Maybe that’s a bad thing.

RB: I don’t think that’s true.

KG: [laughs] Maybe not.

RB: Certainly New Yorkers don’t think anything worthwhile exists west of Philadelphia, forget the rest of the country. Anyway, so if I remember correctly, you went to graduate school at Notre Dame?

KG: Undergraduate. I didn’t go to grad school.

RB: But you stayed on there?

KG: I worked in the athletics department after I graduated.

RB: Because?

KG: My father had been in sports publicity and I did that as an undergraduate and I enjoyed it and for a time that was the career I was going to pursue. After I left there I worked for a sports channel which is now a regional Fox Sports Channel station. And from there I went to the Houston Astros—where I worked for a year in their PR department. I really enjoyed it and was seriously considering making it my career. But I right before I went to Houston I met the woman I would one day marry and after I was in Houston for a year and we had this long-distance relationship going, and a friend of mine was starting an ad agency in Chicago focusing on sports and entertainment—

RB: Another nice guy! Would a New York agency allow one of their people to take off and take care of their new kid and write their novel?

KG: [laughs] He’s a terrific guy. That agency was such a wonderful place to work and a lot of the reason they do such great work is because of that atmosphere. He just wants his people to be as creative as possible.

RB: Not creativity through fear?

KG: No. He just figures if you are creative all the time than you will be creative when you’re working the [agency’s] project.

RB: Yeah, the creative stuff isn’t time or place oriented; one is just as likely to come up with something on the train home or in the supermarket—

KG:—it’s part of the problem of pricing that kind of work. Asking people to pay for creative work. Sometimes you have an idea in five minutes and sometimes it takes 10 weeks. The value of that idea to the client is the same. So that’s always a problem when you are trying to ask people to pay for that kind of content.

RB: How did you do sports publicity when if, as someone said—your wife—you know the least about sports?

KG: She said she does.

RB: Oh.

KG: She said what an unlikely pair we were because she could care less about sports. I’m a big sports fan and she doesn’t care at all.

RB: You ended up working for an advertising agency and you had written a novel, which you shoved into a hole in the ground?

KG: I’m considering right now actually destroying it. There are parts of it that I think I can still cannibalize, maybe.

RB: I wonder about writers doing that. How is it that you remember parts—you’ve written 300 or 400 pages and you remember a part that might work for you in another context?

KG: Isn’t that funny? Especially when you write something that big and real bad, you cling to the few passages that are in there that you think might still worth something and they cling to you. It was very, very bad. Before I sat down and wrote that novel I always thought that novelists were other people. I didn’t know what it was they had, but I just figured it was something I didn’t have.

RB: You had never met a novelist?

KG: In college. I was the escort when the authors came for the literary festival every year. I met some great ones. T.C. Boyle is one of my heroes. Ken Kesey, who was just about the most charming man I have ever met in my life. Derek Walcott, the great poet. I met them, but in those fleeting instances when you are talking with them, especially when I was a college kid and still in awe of these people, it never occurred to me that I could be like them. Until I sat down and took some two years and wrote this horrible, awful novel. But when it was done, it was done. I had done it and it made me think maybe I could do it again, but well [this time].

RB: You took on the main thing you need to write a novel, which is sitting down and doing it.

KG: Yeah.

RB: People talk the talk but—

KG: I learned there wasn’t anything magical about it. That people succeed in this business, which is the same way they succeed in every other business—through hard work and luck. So I sat down and said, “I really enjoyed that I’m going to do it again and hopefully I learned something the last time that I can do better.”

RB: How is it that one of your favorite authors turned out to be Walker Percy?
Guilfoile, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
KG: My sister gave me The Moviegoer when I was in high school. She had read it in college and I just fell in love with the book. And then as I tend to do when I fall in love with a book, I go and try to find every other thing that this person has written. And read through all of his books in the course of one year. What really struck me about Percy and his influence in this book particularly was—not so much The Moviegoer but his later books—each of them was this really interesting riff on genre fiction. With all these great Russian philosophical ideas underpinning them. The Thanatos Syndrome was a thriller. Love in the Ruins was this dystopian sci-fi satire. And Lancelot is this gothic romance. The Second Coming is almost this suburban Updikian mid-life crisis book. But they all snuck in these really great ideas I so admired that I love, and that was almost old fashioned. It was like a 19th-century novel but updated for 20th-century genre. I thought that was terrific, and so he has stayed my favorite.

RB: You didn’t ghettoize him as a Southern writer and move on to see what other Southern writers were about.

KG: When I was reading him initially, I didn’t even know what that meant. I hadn’t read very much Faulkner—maybe one book in high school. I hadn’t come to Flannery O’Connor yet, whom I love. So I didn’t even understand that framework when I was reading him. I thought of him as being like an old Russian novelist [laughs] when I was reading him. Like Dostoyevsky in some way. When I was in college and started to read these other Southern writers and began to understand and I read the biographies of him and maybe the best book I have ever read on writing, which is the correspondence between Shelby Foote and Percy.

RB: Really?

KG: Just a wonderful book on writing. They were childhood friends and—

RB: I look forward to the Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison letters. Two funny guys who are good writers and have been friends since at least college.

KG: Is that coming out?

RB: Who knows?

KG: [laughs] I thought you mean they had already collected them. That would be terrific.

RB: Like Foote and Percy, they weren’t in the thick of the publishing world with its superfluous cultural gossip.

KG: They actually had quite a bit of disdain for all that. Percy came to writing quite late, so a lot of these letters are Foote giving him advice and bringing him on. I learned so much about writing from reading those letters—the process and the anguish.

RB: How much has your life changed since publication?

KG: Oh. The reviews have all been great, except for one thrashing on a web log. Somebody did point that out to me and I am still waiting for the part II [the blogger promised]. I’d like to know what she thinks.

RB: The web logger never responded to my inquiry, and part II has never appeared. For the shit spreading part of our conversation, there was a weblog that once before, with King Wenclas’s accusations—

KG:—about Tom Bissell. Yeah. I remember that. [Blogger Karl “King” Wenclas accused Bissell of plagiarizing a part of his book Chasing the Sea from Murray Feshbach’s 1993 Ecocide in the U.S.S.R.. Almost two years ago, Bissell criticized Wenclas, publicity director of the Underground Literary Alliance, in the Believer, and Bissell credits Ecocide in the U.S.S.R. in both the hardcover and paperback versions of Chasing the Sea.—eds.]

RB: She apologized about that. This was the same kind of situation. What was the point? I don’t even know who the writer was—

KG: I think he was anonymous. I don’t expect that everyone is going to like the book. So if somebody says they hate the book I have to take them at face value. I’m not sure what the point of it [the web log issue] was.

RB: It seems the point was to bring up the incestuous, log-rolling nature of the literary web world and how everyone is engaged in a cluster fuck. Ed Champion loves those kinds of claims and did a wonderfully funny riff on that—how all the web logs are doing each other.

KG: The thing that was silly about it and I didn’t care what they said about me but the three sites they mentioned that were talking about my book—none were lit blogs. It’s irrelevant to that point. Coudal is my former employer, so of course they are promoting me because that is good for business. The Morning News, I’m a contributing writer to, so of course they are promoting me because it’s good for business—I mean what’s the New Yorker Festival except a publication promoting other works of its writers? And Radosh is a guy that I know and he actually came to me first and said, “I got a copy of the galleys. I love it.” I said, “Coudal and the Morning News are going to be giving away books, if you want, I’m sure I can get some for you.”

RB: If would be a dubious thing if anyone were trying to hide the personal connections.

KG: Everybody was totally up front about things.

RB: When did it become illegitimate to tout your friends? Isn’t that exactly what one does?

KG: I guess as blogs are growing in influence and there are more and more of them it’s probably part of the natural ongoing discussion of where do they find their place in the media landscape.

RB: Maybe the place will be found when someone comes up with a more euphonious verb.

KG: [laughs]

RB: It’s an ugly word [blog]. Anyway, I was asking what’s changed for you in the short term—

KG: It happened very fast. I finished in August 2003 and I sent it to an agent, Simon Lipskar at Writer’s House and he wrote me back very quickly in three weeks. He said he read it and loved it and wanted to represent me. He asked me to shorten a little bit, and there were a few things he wanted me to tighten up and I did. They were very wise cuts. The original manuscript was around 160,000 words.

RB: That translates to how many pages?

KG: 560 pages of manuscript probably. He was nervous about sending this big paperweight, this big doorstop of a novel, out to people who have never heard of me and because of the kind of novel it was. He left it completely up to me—but he said you might want to look at this [or that] section. He didn’t specifically tell me what to do. It didn’t take me very long, about a week. They weren’t extensive. And then he sent it out and we had an offer from Knopf five weeks after that.


One of the wonderful things about genre is that if you do it right, you can really surprise people in a way that might be more difficult in a broader literary sense.


RB: Jordan Pavlin is your editor. She was quoted as saying that she had never encountered a writer who could turn on a dime as quickly. I wondered if you would write the same book today.

KG: No. I learned a lot through this. She is an outstanding editor, [though] I don’t have very much to compare it to, quite frankly, but the experience of that was so great. To go through that process and feel the book getting better. And to be so much more proud of it at the end of that than I was at the beginning, was terrific.

RB: I hear what you are saying, but as we ponder how subjective literature is and the idea that if prompted you could quickly turn suggests on any different day you might have a different entry point to the story. That the story is so malleable that there isn’t a platonic, absolute form of this novel.

KG: Right, right, right. She specifically was talking about—let’s see if I can do this without giving too much of the story. There was one major change to the book. There was a character. I thought it would be very clever when I wrote this book, I set up this one person to be the hero of the story. Obviously she is the smartest person in the book. She is clearly the person who is going to figure this all out and solve the mystery and come out on top. And then a third of the way through I killed her. I was very pleased with myself. I thought I was turning these conventions on their head. This was the one person in the book you are sure is going to be saved and be there on the last page and I kill her. Jordan, even before they actually made the offer, the night before, she called me and she said, “We are going to make an offer on this book tomorrow. This is not conditional. We are going to make an offer on this book no matter what your answer to this question is.” But she said, “Is there any way that his character could live a little bit longer? We think she is a great character and we think the book would be more appealing if she didn’t die so soon.” So I told her I would think about it. We then went through the editing process and the whole first draft and she kept saying, “Have you given any more thought to that?” I was resisting it. I was just pleased with myself. I couldn’t let it go. I said, “Well, let’s rewrite the first draft and take care of all the other problems the way it is and then I’ll come up with a way that she can live.” And then we had several conversations where I started going through scenarios, where I said, “OK, this happened and here are all the dominos that would fall if we make that change. And this could happen and that could happen.” At some point in the conversations I realized she was right. Making this change was going to make the book better. And, to her credit, to this day she lets me think it was my idea. [both laugh]

RB: The sign of a skillful editor, or producer or spouse. Your description of Walker Percy leads me to wonder if now having written a book categorized by some as a techno-thriller. Do you have a program in mind to write books that are each significantly different from the other?

KG: I don’t have much interest in writing—at least for now, I should never say never—in writing sequels or serials. Part of the joy for me in writing is making up characters and individuals and putting them in these crucibles, these horrible situations, seeing how they react.

RB: Certainly, T.C. Boyle’s and many others’ m.o.

KG: Yeah, and he is absolutely one of my favorite writers. The book I am writing now is another thriller. It has nothing to do with—it doesn’t have much to do with the themes in Cast of Shadows. The characters are all different. It’s probably similar in genre. I definitely like books where you feel like you are always moving forward. I have always been drawn to stories and storytelling. And so the first impulse for me, is part of all our nature, is the one of telling stories and hearing stories told. And learning something both from the telling and the hearing. I also think that genre, one of the wonderful things about genre is that if you do it right, you can really surprise people in a way that might be more difficult in a broader literary sense.

RB: What is genre?

KG: For me it’s any type of book that the reader has some expectations about what kind of book it’s going to be.

RB: If you read Graham Greene’s books what might your expectations be?

KG: That’s funny, I just picked him up for this trip, I never read Our Man in Havana. I am about to. He called them “entertainments.” Greene is another guy I discovered in college and just loved. He is another guy who writes these books that were all very different and had this veneer of popular fiction but were just full of ideas.

RB: The expectations of genre are front-loaded. When you call something a thriller—in the past the expectation was that the writing wasn’t very good. That seems to have changed. Look at George Pelecanos and Mike Connelly, Chuck Hogan—

KG: Charlie McCarry—his books are incredible. I agree, I don’t think it gets a bad name for that reason. Because readers come with these expectations you can use those expectations to surprise the reader

RB: Reading your book, I didn’t care about what appeared to be clear signals of who the killer was. If it had been the guy it was pointing to, that wouldn’t have changed my experience of reading the book.

KG: Thanks. I did want that to be almost beside the point. That it was operating on enough levels—most people said that they were surprised by the end. Occasionally someone comes up to me and says, “Oh, I knew it all along.” If no one ever told me that I would know that it was cheap—if nobody could figure it out. But most people didn’t and that’s good, too.

RB: So the next book is sort of a thriller. You are known, or had been, for your humor writing. Maybe the subtlety of it escaped me but there is not much funny here. No characters tell jokes.

KG: [chuckles]

RB: Do you still collaborate with the Senator?

KG: John Warner? Yeah. I love writing humor and actually I never thought about it beforehand because writing is writing and you either have a thing you want to write about and you want to satirize it or explore it in a different way and the mode you choose is dependent on subject matter, but looking back on it, I think humor writing is great training no matter what kind of writing you want to do because humor is all about rhythm and timing. That’s a huge part of what good writing is all about. And secondly, in humor and suspense, you are trying to elicit this involuntary reaction from the reader—trying to make them laugh or trying to raise the hair on their neck or whatever. So the craft of that is kind of similar.


This editor had written a letter that was very nice, it said, “We think he is very talented but…” the typical “this isn’t for us,” but they put a coupon at the bottom of the letter, which said, “Good for one ‘I told you so’ if I am wrong on this.”


RB: Isn’t it harder to make someone laugh?

KG: Much, much. And especially at 300 pages. I can count on my fingers and toes the number of great comic novels that I have read. I love them—I’m sure there are more than that but the ones that I have read and have really succeeded—I just read one on the plane, Home Land by Sam Lipsyte, which had me laughing out loud in the cabin of the plane. That’s the first comic novel I have read in a very long time. It’s very hard to do and someday I might like to attempt that. It’s a real challenge.

RB: Speaking of Home Land and Lipsyte, he’s the current poster boy for authorial rejections—

KG: [chuckles] Yeah.

RB: Not the most extreme case, but still, 27 rejections. You haven’t faced this but take a whack at how you think an editor might feel who has rejected a book like Home Land and seeing it go on to great success? Is there a story idea there?

KG: Yeah, really. I have no idea.

RB: Well it’s a speculative bullshit question. I just got caught up in it.

KG: I’m sure they think about it. This novel went out to—I don’t even know, my agent didn’t tell me, but probably initially four or five houses. I don’t know if they heard back from them all before we got the Knopf offer. But he did show me one letter from an editor—I have no idea where he or she worked. But at the—

RB: He or she?

KG: I don’t remember.

RB: I thought you were trying to be tactful.

KG: I didn’t recognize the name so I don’t remember who it was. But he or she, this person, this editor had written a letter that was very nice, it said, “We think he is very talented but…” the typical “this isn’t for us,” but they put a coupon at the bottom of the letter, which said, “Good for one ‘I told you so’ if I am wrong on this.” So I am sure that’s something they think about and talk about when they get together. I can’t imagine if you are in that business it’s anything you can afford to lose sleep over. You make your decisions and move forward.

RB: It’s too early to tell what the ultimate impact of the book will be, I suppose. Has Cast of Shadows been optioned?

KG: No. I have an agent who is working on that.

RB: You live in Chicago. You have a young son. You live in the suburbs. Your wife works for a law firm, she’s a lawyer. And so you are working on your second novel. So, what’s your sense or view of your future?

KG: Since I was a teenager this is what I wanted to do.

RB: Publish one novel? [both laugh]

KG: Write novels. And this last year has been so great. I was writing this and it was early 2003 and my wife became pregnant. She said, “You better finish this novel or you are going to regret it—once the kid comes, you are not going to have time.” We sold the book about two months before Max was born and so I was able to leave the ad agency and be at home. And I am home with Max and I am writing—when he lets me.

RB: As the Tribune profile alludes to you always being able to write anywhere?

KG: Yeah, there are good days and bad days. It probably comes from advertising, where you have to turn it on and off.

RB: A highly prized skill.

KG: So the past year has just been amazing for me. I just hope they keep asking me to write one more and I can keep it going. I hope I can sell enough that they keep asking me to write another one.

RB: That’s the honorable approach espoused by artists. You have a circle of some friends who are writers, John Warner is one. Do people look at you funny because you didn’t go to a writing program, don’t have an MFA?

KG: I haven’t felt that. I never looked into an MFA program so I don’t know much about them. Honestly, I don’t know that many writers. Part of that is living in Chicago. My friends tend to be lawyers and musicians—when I add them all up.

RB: All drug-addled professions.

KG: Exactly. So I haven’t felt that.

RB: What is Chicago like for a writer? I am trying get a sense if there is a center or cluster in the literary life in Chicago.

KG: If there is, I am still outside of it. I know people who write humor and whom I have performed with over the years. There are people who I know who have written for a lot of the same places I have. And we would get together every once in a while and do a reading in a bar. But a lot of those people have moved away to New York or L.A.

RB: Other than Barbara’s Bookstores, are there places known for their readings?

KG: I don’t know that there is. They have closed a couple of locations. They used to have great readings. I remember seeing Martin Amis. The chains have been really aggressive in Chicago and the Midwest, especially. But besides that there is a dearth of literary culture—at least initiated by writers. There is a very large reader culture in Chicago.

RB: There’s no literary magazine locally produced.

KG: Some small ones, and obviously Poetry magazine is big. There is a novel in that saga, isn’t there—about this little magazine that gets this incredible gift and doesn’t know what to do with it.

RB: Reminiscent of the ‘50s TV series The Millionaire.

KG: It’s a beautiful story but there is going to be great drama unfolding, I’m sure, in the years to come over that. So yeah, there are people doing little zines that are doing their thing but there isn’t anything on the scale of what there is in New York or San Francisco, nothing like Open City or McSweeney’s.

RB: Or Swink, Black Clock, Land Grant College Review. It’s weird isn’t it? Maybe it’s the people who have those genes and that drive that can’t stay in Chicago?

KG: I guess they go to “the centers of ambition,” right?

RB: Making Chicago the only major city in the country that is not ambitious. [both laugh] Where you go to have decent life or some such.

KG: I don’t mean this to be derogatory—I have many great friends who are interested and I enjoy their company. And the great thing about this tour is that I am meeting these other writers and it’s all very exciting, but I also like that my friends aren’t all writers. That I don’t spend all my time talking about the business of writing and the craft. Since that at the end of the day, I can put that aside and go and talk about something else.

RB: In your life in Chicago, when you meet new people, do they ask that uncivilized question—

KG: “What do you do?” People still ask you that.

RB: I’d like to think not with the same edge.

KG: It’s more out of curiosity than judgment.

RB: What do you say?

KG: I say I am a writer and a dad, [laughs] which is really my full-time job.

RB: At what point did that become the answer?

KG: When I left advertising.

RB: When you had no gainful employ, you had to say something?

KG: [laughs] Right. When this became the means by which I was drawing any paycheck at all.

RB: Do people look at you with respect? Awe? Quizzically?

KG: I get a lot of questions. People are really curious about it.

RB: Is question two, “What might I have read that you wrote?”

KG: Exactly, “What kind of writing do you do?” And then they want to know how you did it. “How do you get from writing this book to getting it published?” There is a lot of curiosity, as there was with me before I had done it.

RB: Anything unusual happen on your tour?

KG: In a mystery bookstore in Milwaukee, it ended up being just me and the proprietor—

RB: [laughs] As far too often happens.

KG: I didn’t take it personally. I sat and talked to the owner of this bookstore for about an hour about everything from alien conspiracies to political conspiracies to baseball conspiracies—I had a terrific time. A perfect way for me to spend an evening, actually. And then I have run the gamut I have also done readings with 65 and 70 people.

RB: What was Los Angeles like?

KG: It was great. I ended up only doing one reading, at Dutton’s in Brentwood, and it was filled to overflowing, and people were great and appreciative and excited.

RB: Were you surprised?

KG: About L.A.? Yeah I really didn’t know what to expect. Probably my own prejudice coming through there that I was so surprised at what a great turn out it was. It was certainly unfair.

RB: If you read some of the reports, including the recent NEA study, you wouldn’t think anyone was reading anything. But when you talk to people who are going to bookstores to promote their books, despite it being a miniscule sampling and sub-culture, there are great signs of life—you don’t get the picture that the literary culture is in imminent danger of expiration—like Tinkerbell [in Peter Pan].
Guilfoile, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
KG: No, not at all. Enthusiasm—which is about the act of reading, which is different from the way we tell other entertainments. And unlike other forms of entertainment, authors are so, for the most part, accessible in ways that fans of Eminem don’t get to sit in a bookstore or record store and talk to him for an hour. That would never happen for people who are fans of a TV show; fans of Law & Order don’t get to meet Dick Wolf on a Thursday night and sit and talk with him. It would never happen. It’s such a wonderful part of the culture of reading.

RB: The last bastion of humanness.

KG: [laughs]

RB: Besides Home Land, have you read anything that you really like?

KG: Cloud Atlas. I read it for the Morning News [Tournament of Books], and that blew me away. I almost went into reading it wondering if it was going to be gimmicky. I was completely sucked in by it.

RB: It was up for a lot of awards. Did it win anything?

KG: It won the Morning News award, the Rooster.

RB: What did you make of that?

KG: We were part of that discussion.

RB: I must confess I am still confused by the rules.

KG: [laughs]

RB: Which I am sure says something about me. I can’t even program any small electronics that I own.

KG: Part of the point—I shouldn’t say there was a point to it—there really wasn’t. We were just doing it, it was fun. That was the main point of it, to have fun. But we were poking some gentle fun at the arbitrariness of giving awards to books.

RB: I hope that was true [or that that was understood].

KG: We weren’t trying to do it in a mean way. And I am not saying people shouldn’t give awards to books but—

RB: The New York Times coverage seemed not to have caught that.

KG: No, it didn’t. We were talking about the National Book Award controversy and its unfairness, it was completely unfair to the authors—all they had done was written books that were under-appreciated and then someone wants to appreciate them and everybody is upset. It was silly. People put so much—I don’t know what, they put so much importance on these awards that have nothing to do with the works that win them. Whether they are deserving or not.

RB: Well, it’s good that a writer can perhaps win $165,000 from the IMPAC, or whatever, the Pulitzer awards. And the McArthur grants, which are now, strangely, in ill repute because allegedly people become less productive after that success—

KG: [laughs] You should never put “genius” in the title, you are just condemning that person.

RB: It’s nice that there are those lotteries. Actually, the McArthur and Lannan and Heinz seem to be more legitimate because you don’t apply and there is a mysterious selection process which is not competitive. But the “We’re no. 1” culture ought not be applied to books and art. And the best lists are just junk. Will Self had a fine view of literary awards, “How do you win at fiction?” The judgments about this stuff are so subjective.

KG: Exactly. When people ask me what my favorite books are the answer always ends up being different depending about the day and what I am thinking of that day. If you put 10 people in a room, 10 people that you like and respect and asked them the five best books they read last year, you would probably get 10 completely different answers. That’s the way it should be. It’s completely subjective.
 

biopic

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