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Birnbaum v.

Thomas Mallon

When history class turns into a blur of names and dates, historical fiction may be just what you need to put a face on things. Thomas Mallon talks with our man in Boston about the appeal of novels and the state of publishing.

Given the deplorable state of history education, I would argue that American exceptionalism (itself a deadly affliction) is linked to a perilous lack of understanding of, if not wholesale ignorance of, history—American and world. A possible solution to this shameful state of affairs would be to take a cue from writers like Thomas Mallon (and Gore Vidal, Paul Lussier, Michael Drinkard, and, of course, Howard Zinn) and use the immense pool of human narratives in history to present a more inviting face. After all, who doesn’t like a good story?

Mallon, author of numerous historical novels, Henry and Clara, Two Moons, Dewey Defeats Truman, Aurora 7, Bandbox, and, most recently, Fellow Travelers, is a full-service writing wizard, having also published essays and nonfiction (In Fact, Stolen Words, A Book of One’s Own, Mrs. Paine’s Garage) and been a regular contributor to a broad spectrum of national publications. In this, our third chat, he and I talk about the McCarthy years (the setting for Fellow Travelers), Barry Goldwater, the triumph of anti-anti-communism, and how his new opus fits into his splendid body of work.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum, all rights reserved.
 

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Robert Birnbaum: I am not a scholar of your work by any means—this book read differently than any fiction I have read by you previously. Did you feel different writing Fellow Travelers?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah.

RB: Or is it the maturation of your talent? [laughs] What felt different?

TM: I have been amused by some of the early reviews that have been talking about the “surprisingly graphic sex scenes.” First of all, I don’t think they are that graphic. Certainly if you took the heterosexual equivalent of them, nobody would bat an eye. The sex doesn’t take up all that much space, although sex is very much at the heart of the book. But I also think to these reviewers—and they are probably right—my [other] books haven’t exactly been laden with sex and sexual description. That’s been different.

RB: That’s deliberate, but did you consider what the response would be?

Mallon, by Birnbaum, all rights reservedTM: I was very aware that this book would be looked upon, reasonably enough, as my “gay” novel. Which was fine with me. And it’s not exactly as if it’s a coming-out novel. I have always been openly gay, but to put homosexuality front and center in the book was different and these characters, these two fellows, very much realize themselves and reveal themselves sexually in ways that they don’t otherwise. There were times I felt like the actress sitting in the talk show couch who says, “Well, yes, I would do a nude scene if it were integral to the plot.” That old cliché. That came to my mind when I was writing this—I have never had a sense that I was writing a sex scene to write a sex scene. The book in some ways is more a refraction of me than a lot of the other books.

RB: What is a refraction of something?

TM: One of the things I remember when I started this book—you sit down and you make notes on the characters and you construct resumes for them. And with the younger fellow, Timothy Laughlin, the first thing I wrote about him was: Born Nov. 2, 1931. And I was born Nov. 2, 1951. And I said, “Oh, I can see something of what this is going to be about.” This is what my life might have been like 20 years earlier. Much, much rougher than it wound up being. And I wasn’t setting out to write an autobiography, certainly, but there were certain preoccupations of mine: my own Catholic origins; homosexuality; my, to some people’s minds surprisingly and perplexingly, conservative politics. And I was trying to write about those things—I wasn’t writing about them directly—it wasn’t set in my era. But clearly I was more on my own mind in this book than I have been in some.

RB: How much of an amalgam or synthesis is Fuller? [He’s] a very compelling figure who lays a big hurt on Timothy. Have you ever experienced such a betrayal or seen someone do something like that to another?

TM: No, I have never had that kind of treachery from someone. I have certainly—in the romantic wars of life, I have been probably as scarred as this poor fellow Tim, but it was not as a result of a particular kind of betrayal. Even so, though, I don’t think of Fuller as a terrible character.

RB: Right. That’s the dilemma. You watch him as wends his way amorally—he glides through life not obliviously—

TM: No. He’s not indifferent to this boy, either. He’s very fond of this boy. And this boy gets under his skin and that causes problems for him. But he is a victim of the times as much as the younger one. He has a whole different set of resources for coping with the times: spectacular good looks and a pedigree and all of the rest.

RB: And a certain joie de vivre, for lack of a better term.

TM: Right. He’s very funny. He’s magnetic to women as well as to men. And has enough sang-froid—

RB: Another fancy French word.

TM:—To beat the lie-detector test. Whereas the other one, the poor little fellow, Laughlin, who wears his heart on his sleeve, couldn’t play poker let alone beat a lie detector.

RB: Fuller taunts McLeod—in the Lavender period, he’s not especially careful of hiding. [The Lavender period, dubbed such by David K. Johnson’s 2004 book The Lavender Scare, refers to attempts from the late 1940s into the early 1960s to remove gay men and lesbians from government positions.—eds.]

I wasn’t setting out to write an autobiography, certainly, but there were certain preoccupations of mine.TM: He’s playing a very dangerous game. And enough so that it would be reasonable for a reader to wonder if he has a death wish or is he really secretly courting exposure even as a he covers his tracks, even as in some ways he is the less brave of the two—he takes a wife that he really doesn’t want to marry and does take these self-protective measures even as he continues to do things. There is a sense in which he is even more of a victim than Laughlin, although he doesn’t suffer in the same overt way that Tim does, but in a way he is more true to his own nature and is more self-realized by the end of the book than Fuller is. Fuller is aware of that. In the epilogue, you see him beating back his own emotions and his feelings.

RB: He saves a fax of drawings [that are by Tim].

TM: And the little paperweight.

RB: What was it he asked Mary to pass on to Fuller? “Tell him—”

TM: “Make it easy on him. Tell him I was happy enough.”

RB: Happy enough. [chuckles]

TM: And it’s an unconscious echo—he wouldn’t have known that Fuller has said to Mary earlier in the book, “Make it easy on him when you tell him about my engagement.”

RB: Doesn’t Fuller tell Mary to tell Tim about Fuller’s betrayal?

TM: Yes.

RB: So doesn’t that in effect make it hard on Tim?

TM: That’s right, it’s a double echo. At that time he says, “Make it hard on him, really throw this bucket of cold water on him.” The betrayal may be treacherous, but when he says, “Make it hard on him,” that’s an act of kindness on his part. Break this fever in him. Some readers and reviewers who have been regarding him as this terrible character—a bad guy—I just don’t see him that way. To me he is very charming and if he didn’t have all these positive attributes, the younger man wouldn’t fall for him as hard.

RB: Maybe yes, maybe no. This is touchy—if they read Fuller as a treacherous, terrible villain, have they read this story wrong?

TM: In my academic days there was always the phrase “the intentional fallacy,” and in some ways the author’s intentions are meaningless. The book means what it means to a reader, and I would never say that somebody has misread the book. They may have misread my intention—my intention is certainly not to make Fuller look like a bad guy. But if they read him that way, there are reasons for that, presumably, reasons in their own life, things that are on the page that maybe I am not even understanding myself. But if you restrict it to my intentions, I certainly didn’t think of him as a bad guy. I loved writing dialogue for Fuller—he is funny, malicious, and he was fun. He’s meant to be a very sexy, attractive character.

RB: There are the three major characters and a cast of interesting minor characters—I like McIntyre, the political operative—

TM: Who is a real person. Very forgotten and long dead but he was a somewhat mysterious character that was in [Sen. Charles] Potter’s office and I discovered a little about him. Richard Rovere—

RB:—wrote a book on McCarthy.

TM: And he also reviewed Potter’s book on McCarthy in the New York Review of Books and wrote the most scathing and hilarious review. Because Potter’s book was quite self-serving. Potter was not a profile in courage when it came to McCarthy. But he didn’t write his book for a decade. And when he wrote it, he made himself appear a bulwark of civil liberties that he had not actually been. McIntyre did manipulate him in a couple of ways. I know nothing about him, just a whisper, and I invented all the rest, including this supposed connection with Potter way back when. But he is actually real.

RB: He existed, but everything you write is made up.

TM: Almost everything.

RB: So, of course, as you have been hopping around in American history—this is a really interesting period of U.S. history and I wonder if now, today there is a good grasp of what McCarthyism is—it’s turned into a vague slur.

The book means what it means to a reader, and I would never say that somebody has misread the book.TM: I have yet to see it because I wouldn’t let myself see it as I was writing this book, but there was the Clooney movie, Good Night, and Good Luck. There were stories that people actually wrote in, voting members of the Academy, suggesting that guy who played McCarthy for an Oscar. And they only used clips of him [from newsreels, instead of hiring an actor].

RB: [laughs]

TM: Which would suggest that his is not a familiar image to people.

RB: There was a De Niro movie [Guilty by Suspicion] where he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but I can’t remember many novels about that era.

TM: There are quite a number of reviews that talk about McCarthy as the head of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Which is all wrong—he never even served in the House, let alone on that committee. [McCarthy represented Wisconsin in the Senate from 1947 to 1957, leading the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.—eds.] I don’t think there has been that much fiction about it. And one of the things I was trying to write about—though I did not have any great political intentions with this book—I was fundamentally trying to write a love story in this book, but insofar as the book is about politics, what I think would be a little bit different about it—I am not taking, here, what is the standard liberal anti-McCarthy position. I am trying to take a standard, maybe not so standard but a conservative anti-McCarthy position. From my point of view, McCarthy was ultimately more a tragedy for American conservatism than he was for American liberalism, in that he made anti-communism disrespectable. That is a very strong statement I am making, but he was for a great extent, responsible for the phenomenon of anti – anti-communism.

RB: That is a bit strong—as if it couldn’t fail of its own weight.

TM: Tim thinks, in this book—and he is trying to be a good person, and trying to bring all these things together—he thinks at one point of McCarthy as “the devil doing the Lord’s work.” I do think that communism was a mortal danger to America and the world. And I don’t think it’s a myth even that there were communists in government. McCarthy’s methods for rooting them out were reprehensible and he did tremendous damage, so that when people expressed sincere anxiety about communism it tended to be passed off as anti-communist hysteria.

RB: The anti-communist movement also had characters like Roy Cohn—is there a worse person in recent American history? [Cohn was an attorney best known for his high-profile role in the trial and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and later as a high level “fixer.”—eds.]

TM: Awful, totally.

RB: J. Edgar Hoover? A hero? That his name adorns a federal building, given his hypocrisy and malevolence—

TM: Right.

RB: I see a problem with the American conservative movement—the leaders tend to be hypocrites and crooks. [laughs]

TM: When I was 13 years old, I was mad for Barry Goldwater, and I would vote for him tomorrow. But he couldn’t get the Republican nomination today.

RB: Of course not.

TM: Because he was pro-choice and late in life a progressive on gay issues and he was a genuine libertarian. And so that’s my kind of—

RB: That’s definitely a horse of different color.

TM: In between you have to deal with Reagan. And I think Reagan was aggressive against communism and everybody argues about whether Reagan won the Cold War. Was he lucky to be serving [at that time]? If you want my take, Reagan has a lot to do with winning the Cold War.

RB: After reading Richard Reeves’s President Reagan, I saw him a bit more positively as a leader.

TM: His book is very interesting on Reagan.

RB: He is not a guy who would be inclined to commend Reagan. He was fair to Reagan and was clear that he believed a few things and acted on them and he delivered his lines well. I don’t now think as badly of Reagan as I did when he was president, falling asleep during cabinet meetings. And he was not a hypocrite, but [hypocrites] seemed to gather around him. I’m thinking of the scary Frontline show on Jack Abramoff and all those Republican swindlers like Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed and the K Street group. Tom DeLay?

When I was 13 years old, I was mad for Barry Goldwater, and I would vote for him tomorrow. But he couldn’t get the Republican nomination today.TM: Well, to confine it to the specific issue of anti-communism—one of the things was I grew up with a father who had been, as a young man, a real New Dealer. My father traveled exactly the same political route that Ronald Reagan did, actually a little earlier than Ronald Reagan: an Irish kid from Hell’s Kitchen, a New Dealer in the ‘30s, then went into the Army in World War II, and afterwards married, moved to the suburbs, was newly middle class, and by ‘56 was voting for Eisenhower. And passionately for Nixon and Goldwater as the years went on. There are figures in this book that I remember even though this is me 20 years—me? Some aspect of me—20 years earlier. I do remember the ‘50s and early ‘60s, certainly, and some of these figures in real time. Bishop Sheen was a towering figure in my childhood. Nixon, even before he was president. So my father’s anti-communist politics, which I absorbed, I have never felt apologetic about. I was trying in a way—it has been a bonanza for the Left, that McCarthy winds up being associated to the extent that he was, with anti-communism.

RB: If anyone was trying to capitalize on his depredations—they were too busy wiping the muck off themselves.

TM: The long run of history will not be kind to McCarthy, nor should it be; it will be kind to anti-communism. History does tend to be kind to the winners.

RB: Who was an admirable anti-communist through this period? [Top State Department Security Officer Robert Walter] Scott McLeod? Everett Dirksen [the congressman, and later senator, from Illinois]?

TM: Dwight Eisenhower.

RB: Was he really?

TM: Most of the Democratic Party—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, all of the rest. You had up until Vietnam—from the late ‘40s until the mid ‘60s, you had a bipartisan foreign policy. Truman, for all his domestic liberalism, is a figure who is revered by Republican conservatives for his foreign policy. But then the Soviet Union was such a big, long, enduring institutional fact of life and the stakes were so potentially apocalyptic that it was very difficult to appear in really direct opposition to them. It would be one thing to contain them—somebody asked Reagan when he was getting ready to run for president, “What is your view of the Cold War?” [Mallon takes on a good Reagan voice] “We win, they lose.” I thought that was thrilling. Electrifying. I thought the “evil empire” speech was one of the greatest speeches ever.

RB: What we know now about the Soviet Union was that it was crumbling rapidly from the inside, that it could hardly get anything done. It was going to fall apart from the core.

What this is about, this novel, is a kind of good-hearted young man who is trying to do the right thing.TM: Ah, Robert, yes, this to me is the 1980s Democratic Party speaking. This is the voice of Strobe Talbott, Walter Mondale’s adviser, who, you listen to him in the early ‘80s and the Soviet Union is too strong for us to oppose, we must find a way to live together. And then as soon they collapse late in the ‘80s, his basic argument was they were too weak to ever have worried about. It can’t be both.

RB: I didn’t say that were not to be worried about—how good was our intelligence that we kept ramping up our military expenditures in the face of an assumed threat? In [Martin] Amis’s new novel, House of Meetings, it’s very clear that the Soviets were in terrible shape in so many areas—they seemed to be a real paper tiger.

TM: But on the other hand isn’t it interesting and isn’t something wrong when Martin Amis is virtually the only serious writer in British fiction of his generation and a little older that you can think of who is actually preoccupied with the tremendous evil? The numbers are staggering. The numbers are worse than Nazi numbers. And that says something.

RB: Amis starts off his book Koba the Dread quoting Robert Conquest on the characters, the letters, on the page representing deaths and—

TM: That really does say something, and in the end, the enormous military spending by the United States in the ‘80s did help push the Russians into a death spiral. The same with the deployment of intermediate nuclear missiles. In any case, [laughs] in literary terms, this is a pretty small patch of ground where you find literary fiction taking this—although this is hardly a strident anti-communist novel. What this is about, this novel, is a kind of good-hearted young man who is trying to do the right thing. He is trying to feel his way—whereas Fuller is much too cynical about politics.

RB: The book’s politics seem more to be about the practice of politics where everyone had something on someone and the normal horse trading and wheeling and dealing and who really believes in principle?

TM: The phrase that keeps recurring is “the world of who had what on whom.” Even when people would like to be good and are fundamentally decent people like Potter, some kind of weakness keeps them from being good. And then to have to try to live out what is a proscribed sexual and emotional life in this period and to feel all of that crushed is almost unbearable. I was trying to write this book about two people who were really under intolerable kinds of pressure and who cope with it and live through it in very different ways.

RB: What was the reason you brought this wonderful woman, Mary, into play?

Mallon, by Birnbaum, all rights reservedTM: Mary Johnson, the third character. It’s funny, I realized, a lot of my books have involved triangles. Dewey Defeats Truman is a kind of love triangle that mirrors the election: these two guys fighting over the young woman as if she is the electorate and Two Moons is a triangle. There is the female “computer” working at the observatory caught between the will o’ the wisp astronomer and the brutish, magnetic Roscoe Conkling, and [in Fellow Travelers] this was a non-sexual triangle, in that neither one is interested in Mary sexually. And she occasionally worries and wonders if perhaps she is in love with Fuller, and Fuller would probably like her to be because he is accustomed to everybody being in love with him. But what she is is more an emotional go-between for the two of them. I think of her as having a lot of the qualities of both of them. She is close to Tim in the sense that she is also somebody in the world who is trying to do the right thing. But she also—she is aware of certain affinities between herself and Fuller. She thinks there is a fatal self-sufficiency to the two of them. Why can’t she completely give herself over to one of her suitors, whether it’s the brewer or the Estonian-American businessman? She fears there is a chill inside of her. In a way, I invented a character through which the two of them could talk to each other.

RB: It’s difficult not to admire Tim for his choirboy, angelic character.

TM: Yeah.

RB: But because Mary is more worldly, she comes off to be the most admirable of the three characters.

TM: Oh sure! That is quite deliberate. Without trying to make her way ahead of her times. It would be unnatural to give even a “good person” overly progressive views on homosexuality in that time. The temptation is there to do it. But she is quite uncomfortable with the idea of both of them being homosexual.

RB: It turns out that Tim’s sister understands he is a homosexual and has no problem—an unexpected generosity—she ends up burying him with the cufflinks Fuller had given him.

TM: She says something to him—

RB: “Bring him around the house for dinner.”

TM: You could probably argue that she is ahead of her time on that—certainly some people were. The line she has was drawn from real life. It was actually something my mother said to me when I, I was around 30—which was late to be talking about such things with—not late, everybody does these things at their [own] pace.

RB: That places it in the early ‘80s, when it was still a dicey time to come out.

TM: And even if you were sympathetic to the person coming out and you loved them, you’d be worrying about AIDS. I remember having this conversation with my mother one morning at the breakfast table. I was home—I can’t remember why. Spring break from Vassar maybe, where I was teaching, and I was on my way in to New York to meet somebody with whom I was having a romance that was going nowhere. I was clearly very blue and she wanted to know why. And suddenly everything came tumbling out. And she was sort—I don’t think she was dying of shock. My father was gone by that point, but I was very eager to know if she ever talked about it with Dad. She said. “Well, yes, he always said to me if he has something to tell us, he’ll tell us. Don’t bother him.” Which was very much the libertarian side of my father, in a way. He detested busybodies and snoops and all. I went back up to my room and I remember my mother—who was still working in those days, she had this little job in the next town—she came in to my room and I was sitting there thinking, “That went well. That’s great—should have done that a long time ago.” And she came in to my room and said to me, “There’s just one thing I want to say.” And I remember my first thought was, “Something is going to ruin it. There is going to be some caveat, some reservation.” And I turned around and said, “Yeah Mom,” [pauses, gets emotional] She reached over to me, “I just want you to know that anybody you care about is always welcome in this house.”

RB: Very sweet.

Writing narrative was the last thing that came to me as a writer. I still think of myself as an essayist who happens to write novels.TM: Aside from being the most perfect thing one could say, that was coming from somebody who had nothing like the kind of background or sophistication that one was supposed to have in order to be able to make a remark like that. Things have come a long way by the early ‘80s but not everybody came along like that. To have Francie, Tim’s sister, say that to him in the ‘50s is probably a species of emotional anachronism. But truly there were some people who stuck with other people and helped them along. Again, one of the themes of the book is just everybody’s inability to be who they really are in this book. The gay characters, especially, but everybody is crushed—

RB: Who gave that speech that included the imperative, “Be a man?”

TM: That’s a fiction, although Stiles Bridges, the senator from New Hampshire who was McLeod’s patron—I invented that, but he could have easily have been addressing St. Paul’s in the chapel. Actually that’s the speech Fuller recalls from his prep-school days. But also in that same chapter when he goes in to take the lie-detector test, there’s a pamphlet with a speech that McLeod gave in Topeka to the American Legion and that is a real speech and those are real quotations.

RB: If this book has been a more personal effort and closer to what you have encountered and seen, how much does it or might it echo [what you will do] after you do whatever the publicity needs are? Might it mean, in terms of your body of work, a turning point?

TM: I had a sense when I published Henry and Clara, about a dozen years ago, [that] I was doing something slightly different. Even though I was getting deeper into history as material for fiction, but also, there was a certain kind of—some of it was melodramatic but there was a kind of passion in that novel that had not been in the two I had written before it. And I feel that probably more strongly with this one. That there is—

Today’s American writer of literary fiction tends to write fiction exclusively. Writers of that previous generation were much broader and were in ways much more connected.RB: Bandbox was fun, but—

TM: The funny thing is as a writer just looking at them as literary constructions, Bandbox is probably my best book. In that it’s the best-built book. It is lighter than air.

RB: [laughs]

TM: But it is, if I do say so myself, a nice little machine. It’s hard to write farce, I found, to keep all these plates in the air. Writing narrative was the last thing that came to me as a writer. I still think of myself as an essayist who happens to write novels. And don’t think I really knew much about writing narrative at all until I was writing Dewey Defeats Truman, which was a complicated book in its way, with a lot of different plots. Henry and Clara has a fairly—the narrative drives ahead pretty steadily, and it was a narrative essentially given to me by history. By life. Whereas Dewey, which was my fourth novel, was where I really felt I was learning something about constructing a book and writing narrative. Aurora 7 had been a kind of stunt, with all these things taking place on a single day. And with Fellow Travelers, in some ways, was an easier book than Bandbox. The cast of main characters is smaller and it was easier in terms of avoiding continuity problems.

RB: Did you consider a different title—perhaps Lavender or Pink?

TM: I barely remembered that line of dialogue, but it keeps coming back to me in reviews now. It would have been a possibility. But for some reason this was always the title.

RB: Are you prepared to call yourself a novelist now?

TM: Oh, sure. But I still write—I don’t write as many nonfiction books as novels but I still write, day to day, for magazines and papers. I still write as much nonfiction.

RB: You were quoted somewhere that you’ve owed Random House a book about diaries for 20 years?

TM: [laughs] I do. I did write a book about diaries 20 years ago—A Book of One’s Own. I have been supposedly writing a book about letters that is to be the companion—and I have about 60,000 words of it. It wouldn’t take all that much to finish it. Maybe it’s time finally to finish. I enjoy writing nonfiction. I enjoy reviewing. Some novelists who review think of it as an onerous thing, like grading papers. It’s just a means to an end. I enjoy it and I work hard at it. I wish more novelists did reviews. One thing that’s a problem is that literary novelists who complain about the shrinkage of newspaper reviews—one of the things that they don’t do themselves is enter the fray. And won’t review a book unless they like it. They’re afraid of making enemies. A very common practice, when they are asked to review a book by editors, is to say, “Send it to me. If I like it I’ll write something.” That doesn’t work.

RB: I get that, but I operate under the premise that there are really so many good and worthwhile books out there, it seems a waste to write a negative review when one could as easily find a book to write positively about. You don’t have to review every book, so it may sound like an unlikely calculation, but personally I don’t like to write a bad review because I know of so many good books that go unnoticed.

TM: Sure. If you write a negative review that proceeds from analysis and you have reasons to offer—it sounds pompous, but then it’s a species of criticism. When I wrote the book column in GQ for a long time, I don’t think I ever beat up on someone’s first book—I didn’t see the point of strangling an unknown novelist. It was something if someone had an inflated reputation or was just big enough and had been out there long enough to take it, but literary writers are a little too shy about this. Not all novelists should write criticism. Some of them aren’t any good at it, and it’s a book review editor’s assumption that every novelist can review another novel, which is a false assumption. Just like that which academics have that every novelist can teach—”Let’s hire so-and-so because his or her novel did so well,” and they can turn out to be a disaster in the classroom. We were talking about [Norman] Mailer earlier. When I look back at those writers who were in their prime when I was in college, in their 40s and 50s, Mailer, my great mentor and influence, Mary McCarthy, [Gore] Vidal, James Baldwin, on the younger side Joan Didion—look at the whole slew—[Truman] Capote, to some extent. They were not shy about making judgments about other writers of fiction. It’s not just that they were unafraid to review one another—all of those writers wrote large bodies of non-fiction as well as fiction. Today’s American writer of literary fiction tends to write fiction exclusively. Writers of that previous generation were much broader and were in ways much more connected.

RB: There was more public conversation with more participants. Now it seems not to be multi-voiced; in fact it seems not to be more than celebrity gossip—advances and agent firings and movie options and such.

TM: Most of those names that we think of as big novelists of that era, not only did they write a lot of non-fiction but in a lot of cases—Baldwin, McCarthy, Didion, Mailer—I would say they were better writers of non-fiction than fiction. They ultimately did their best work outside the novel.

RB: You didn’t include Gore Vidal.

TM: I give Vidal really high marks as a fiction writer—he brought to my bailiwick—

RB: The Empire series.

TM: —Historical fiction, brought back a certain kind of learning and wit. And wit was conspicuously absent from historical fiction. He is a fabulous essayist. I once said so in the National Review, which was a fairly brave thing to do as a young critic in the early ‘80s. His achievement in fiction is substantial—he revived the whole genre.

RB: Is he to be admired also for his seeming fearlessness? He seems not to measure his words—

TM: There was a kind of bravery and nerve to all of those people—Mary had it. Mailer had it. Look at the sheer ballsiness of guys like Baldwin and Capote. They had it and [modern] American novelists would be in a better position [with it]. Their fiction would thrive from writing more criticism, reportage, nonfiction. Some of this has to do—there are a number of big cultural reasons why this happened—some of it has to do with the way the academy made such a place for fiction writers in the years after the war. And the other is the decline of the general-interest magazine. When you think of the way in which magazines like Esquire, in particular, which was the great magazine, Esquire in the ‘60s—they would match up novelists and subjects. They would deploy novelists to venues and put them on assignments that the novelists might not have cooked up on his or her own. And there is not as much of that.

RB: Someone at GQ is smart enough to send George Saunders off to Nepal or Iraq.

TM: Yeah. The first thing these magazines did was, the “slicks,” as they used to be called, they abandoned fiction. Another reason American short fiction has had a rough ride in the last few decades—if you look back at the ‘50s and look at writers who we think of as premier short story writers of their time—Eudora Welty, Capote—where were they publishing this fiction? They were often publishing places like Mademoiselle or Harper’s Bazaar.

RB: Look. Saturday Evening Post.

TM: All of those venues, if they exist at all, have long since ceased publishing fiction.

They are reading fewer books. There are all these other things competing for their eyes. The amount of stuff that they are reading online, they are reading all kinds of things in smaller versions.RB: Two things have happened: lots and lots of small literary magazines, and despite the claim that they don’t sell, publishers still continue to put out a fair number of story anthologies.

TM: There is an element there of preaching to the converted. The people who find short fiction in literary magazines—and there are excellent magazines—they are already readers. Whereas when I bought short fiction for GQ in the early ‘90s, aside from the fact that GQ paid real money and we got wonderful fiction writers, we always had big bylines. If they were accustomed to publishing in literary quarterlies, this was unusual, to be publishing in a mass-circulation magazine. My suspicion is that the only part of the magazine that was less-read than my column about books was probably fiction. And yet if you took whatever the figure was, 800,000 readers, if 10 percent of them even looked at a piece, you had 80,000 readers.

RB: More than 20 or so of the small magazines combined.

TM: GQ was in some ways—Art Cooper, when he ran the magazine, in some ways wanted to make it more like the Esquire for the ‘60s than Esquire was in the ‘60s. The formula was great—all of the stuff that made the magazine look like a giant catalogue—all of the ads and all of the fashion spreads. It floated a lot of serious writing in the front of the book. It was a fun place to work.

RB: Jim Shepard told me he had a story published in GQ and one of his students said, “Oh, I saw your story in GQ. I can’t wait to finish it.” And he’s thinking, “The story was three pages long. How long does it take?” Part of the problem, at least, is what kind of readers are being trained. Is that a responsibility anyone should take upon themselves? I say just publish the stuff.

TM: [laughs] The biggest thing now, the most fundamental thing going on in publishing—I would say the publishing industry that I entered in 1980 when I signed my first book contract, that’s nearly 30 years ago—that industry bore more resemblance to the publishing world of 1920 than to the publishing world of today. All of these changes we have seen from superstores to online bookselling, you name it, but the most fundamental thing that is going on is people are not reading less, but they are reading fewer books. There are all these other things competing for their eyes. The amount of stuff that they are reading online, they are reading all kinds of things in smaller versions. I am not sure they are reading anything straight through—by the time you get to paragraph four you have clicked on another bookmark and checked in with something else. The thing is how, specifically, do we get people to read books? And this has not been figured out.

RB: And now, how many people live lives that allow them to set aside an hour or two or three of unbroken time to luxuriate in a book? Life seems to be more fractured in smaller chunks of time.

TM: And it’s very rare that you are doing one thing at a time. One of the things that people do particularly when they read online is that they are always multitasking and doing something and reading with one eye.

RB: I don’t call looking at a computer monitor reading. I call it scanning—I print out what I intend to read.

TM: Even if you do that, do you—of course you read for a living—but that kind of conscientious reading you are describing, is it cutting into the number of books you might be reading?

RB: Yes.

TM: Even in a case like your own where you are obviously reading books all the time, so I don’t really know—I have no insights into the future.

What I don’t know how to do is write short stories, the way most of my literary novelist friends, they write stories from time to time.RB: I have noticed that in the past few years my fanatical, compulsive need to finish every book I start has gone by the way. I finish far fewer than I start. Now I don’t feel bad about it—I place a greater responsibility on the book to make me want to finish it. And yet I wish I could read many more books—the pile of “to be read” is constant and teetering. Anyway, what’s next, do you know?

TM: Good question.

RB: No, it’s not. [laughs]

TM: [laughs] Good question for me because I am not totally sure.

RB: Is that normal for you?

TM: No. Well I thought I knew: the novel I was writing about a month ago, and there is another idea that is invading my mental space now which is an enviable problem. At least for me, in that I think I have two novels and I don’t know which I am actually going to move ahead on first. Which is a signal to me this is God, the Catholic of Timothy Laughlin’s childhood, telling me it’s time to finish this book about letters first [both laugh] and by the time you’re done with that you’ll know which one is right.

RB: Your facility and joyfulness in writing in many different forms takes pressure off of having to make Solomonic decisions about what to do—writing a novel is a big chunk, a big commitment of time.

TM: Right. There is always magazine work, shorter things, and a nonfiction project—

RB: It’s satisfying to start something and complete it in a short timeframe.

TM: Yeah. What I don’t know how to do is write short stories, the way most of my literary novelist friends, they write stories from time to time. I used to buy short fiction but I don’t write it. I’ve published one short story in my entire life. I don’t understand the genre, and I am incapable of doing it and that may be the expository essayist in me that I need to work along—the same way I have never written a novel in anything but the third person. There, too, you see the essayist being reluctant to let go of his prerogatives. I know some novelists who, when they are through with the big, long march through the novel, they refresh themselves by writing some stories.

RB: Even though everybody, including practitioners, says they are harder to write.

TM: I would believe it. It’s some kind of break in the rhythm that appeals. Whereas in my case, I don’t have that to turn to but I always have nonfiction to turn to—one thing often leads to the next. Particularly with historical fiction. I remember Dewey Defeats Truman got started because I was out in Owasso, Mich., writing this magazine piece on a summer festival—I had just wanted to write about this state fair and I went out to this thing that has nothing to do with Dewey and keep seeing these signs saying “Birthplace of Thomas E. Dewey,” and I got this idea for a comedy in my head, or basically comedy, and then that book was published, and shortly after the New York Times Magazine said, “We’d like you to profile Bob Dole.” I guess I was in the Rolodex under “Republican losers.”

RB: [laughs]

TM: So I went down and I did a nonfiction magazine profile. Same way I did that book about Ruth Paine, which had to do with the Kennedy assassination. That clearly grew out of Henry and Clara. I had obviously been preoccupied with the Kennedy assassination and I had known her story, but writing about Henry and Clara, these bystanders who were innocently enmeshed—

RB: Whom you mention in Fellow Traveler—Henry.

TM: Yeah, I can’t seem to let go of the Rathbones: They even have a cameo in Two Moons. But that and the book on Ruth was a prolonged detour from fiction.

RB: By the way, have you read about Vincent Bugliosi’s new behemoth tome on the assassination, Reclaiming History, which is 20 years of research denying all manner of theories—

TM: If you go down past the newsstand in the lobby—

RB: [laughs]

TM: You will find my 3,000 words on it in the June Atlantic. They call my piece “A Knoll of One’s Own.” It’s extraordinary, it is heavier than my Collected Shakespeare at home—the finished copy arrived yesterday and I thought it was going to break my glass-top coffee table. It’s astonishing and the thrust of my piece is that in many way it’s an extremely sensible book reaching the conclusion that it was indeed Oswald, and it’s incredibly thorough, pugnacious, and passionate.
 

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