David Gates and Bernard Cooper talk about their contributions to Granta 126: do you remember, untricky writing and purgatory mates.
Your contribution to the ‘do you remember’ issue floored me. Harrowing in the best way, and filled with sharp and telling detail.
While reading ‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’, I was reminded of a powerful reading you gave at Bennington about the death of your father. Both these texts take an unflinching look at one man’s physical decline and how the people around him contend, or fail to contend, with the fact of mortality. Do you in any way consider yourself an elegiac writer? Are you guided by an impulse in your non-fiction to pay homage to what’s vanished, to lament its passing?
Thanks for being floored, Bernard – we aim to please. I suppose at my age (I just turned sixty-seven) a lot of writers tend to get elegiac. I hope not to go overboard with all the unflinchingness, but mortality does tend to suggest itself as a subject. I’m not consciously aware of wanting to pay homage to the past – though I guess my evocation of my protagonist’s young manhood might have that effect – and I don’t think I lament much of anything, even unconsciously. I’m sufficiently cold-hearted, or sufficiently in denial, to think of it simply as useful material out of which to construct a piece of fiction. Just for instance: I once played the mandolin onstage with a cast on my leg at age seventeen or eighteen, but the cast wasn’t decorated to look like a cowboy boot, I wasn’t a good mandolin player, and I would certainly have been nobody’s hero; I was more like my hero-worshipping protagonist. Some details of my mandolin player’s death are based on the death of my father, but, again, it was a matter of putting a few real-life raisins in a fictional batter, and the batter was more important. My protagonist seems to be fighting it out with his tendency toward the elegiac and nostalgic – and unless I’m kidding myself, it’s much more of an issue for him than it is for me.
Your piece, since it’s non-fiction, seems to evoke both the spirit and the letter of your personal past, though of course I have no way, and no inclination, to fact-check you. But I wouldn’t call it elegiac, and I detect no note of lamentation in it – rather I see fondness and gratitude for what you learned and experienced as a young man, and a comic distance that’s never played for laughs, and that never shades into self-contempt (I’d say the same of The Bill from My Father, which I taught to my grad students in Montana last fall). I’m not trying to solicit self-praise from you, but is that your sense of how you, as a writer, approach and make use of your past? I don’t see you as given to nostalgia.
No, neither of us are given to nostalgia. Nostalgia suggests that the past is superior to the imperfections and disappointments of the present, and idealizes what was. In our different ways, both of us can be, as you put it, cold-hearted in our observations, observations whose purpose, after all, is to fully realize the world of a story and perhaps to make a reader bracingly aware that this story is as specific and finite as life itself. No pining for the old days, please. No wistful tributes. Still, part of what drives me to write is the nearly continual sense that everything we know, everything we are, is on the verge of vanishing. And so when I use the word ‘lament’, I mean a stark acknowledgement of this mortal condition.
Here’s a line by Denis Johnson that’s haunted me for years: ‘That world! They rolled it up on a scroll and put it away somewhere. I can touch it with my fingers, but where is it?’ That’s the kind of lament that moves me – short on regret and long on bewilderment. It reminds me that when a memoirist attempts to recreate his or her past, or when a fiction writer attempts to create a character’s past, we are working to get a grasp of material that is at once tangible and tantalizingly beyond our reach. I like to work within that paradox.
On another note: ‘A Hand Reached Down To Guide Me’ (is the title taken from a folk song or hymn?) is a story alive with music. Music is a preoccupation for both of us, though I’m an obsessive listener to new, mostly electronic music, while you not only play in The Dog House Band with literary lights Sven Birkerts, Mason Wyatt, James Wood, etc., but you also strike me as a walkin’ talkin’ repository of blues history and lore.
What are some primary overlaps in your music and your writing? Do you listen to music while you write?
Bernard, I’m a lot more worried about myself vanishing. Barring a nuclear or climatic disaster (which you can’t bar, but we’ve skated on our thin ice for quite a while now), much that I love in the world, and many of the people I love in the world, bid fair to outlast me, at least by a few years. Maybe we’re talking about different worlds? Trees, mountains, rivers, oceans – all in danger, but all chugging on for now. Books and music and movies – all digitally preserved. Other people – mostly younger than I am. Sure, the elders are passing away – both those in my family and those in the culture (if Lou Reed’s gone, can Willie Nelson be far behind?) – but that’s what elders do.
You asked about the title of that story: it comes from a Stanley Brothers song called ‘My Sinful Past’. I try to keep my musical obsessions out of my fiction – I hate to be nerdy – but they creep in anyway, since music is so much a part of my life. This story was in part an attempt to treat musical obsessiveness head-on, rather than sneaking it in as if it were normal. If you’d asked me a couple of months ago about listening to music while writing, I’d have said no, never. But for some reason, back in December I used music to power me through the end of a novella I was working on. It can’t be music with words – only jazz or so-called classical music. During my siege with the novella, I listened repeatedly to a four-CD set by the ‘60s jazz guitarist Grant Green. I have no idea if I’ll do this again.
I’d like to know what appeals to you in electronic music. I had a little vogue for it, back when, say, the Chemical Brothers or Underworld or whoever were a big deal – the very names probably tell you what a duffer I am – but I don’t listen to it much any more. I think you have a stronger connection to the modern/postmodern than I do in several respects: I might as well just admit I think conceptual art is a fraud, while your piece suggests it was eye- and- mind-opening for you. And yet your writing, at least formally, seems straightforward and untricky. I mean, you don’t write the word ‘the’ in the middle of an otherwise blank page and try to persuade us it’s a poem.
David, I envy your sense of continuity! Mine was disrupted early on by family circumstance – three older brothers passing away – and by a decade of losses wrought by AIDS, so many friends gone in such rapid succession that one couldn’t keep track, couldn’t process such an onslaught of grief, a phenomenon Susan Sontag wrote about so well in ‘The Way We Live Now.’ I wish I could take more solace in the natural world, but I’ve lived in cities all my life and, to borrow from Fran Leibowitz, the outdoors is where I have to go between buildings. In any case, I consider myself an optimist because, for starters, there’s music to be heard and some of it is so irresistible, even the Grim Reaper could get his groove on.
Not only do I thrive on electronica – especially British dubstep, The Purple Wow Sound, UK funk reductions – but I love reading reviews of these genres, especially on a site called Boomkat, which uses lots of noisy jargon – ‘dub stabs,’ ‘jacking,’ ‘psychedelic wooze’ – and the sonic terminology fills me with delight. A great deal of popular electronic music makes some radical sound experiments – atonal music, say, or the looped repetitions of early Steve Reich – accessible, blurring the boundaries between popular music and experimental music. And here I lapse into the abyss of nerdiness, too. But don’t you find it a joy to find other music nerds who share your territory? It’s like meeting someone else who’s sighted the same UFO, and at last you can talk about it!
Art-wise, there’s a lot of crap flying under the banner of conceptualism, and one of the best things about having graduated from the most avant-garde art school in the country (Walt Disney’s Cal Arts) was feeling that I’d paid my dues by watching unthinkably tedious videos, by hearing far-fetched explanations of the artist’s intent, etc., that I finally feel comfortable saying what you feel comfortable saying: some of it is a sham. But I bet I could also sway your opinion, David, by showing you visually compelling and poetic works of conceptual art. One example: the artist Douglas Heubler took his infant daughter’s first drawing and his father’s last doodle, plotted them out on a football field with magnesium flares, and then flew over them at night to take a photograph: two luminous but primitive shapes that chart the impulse to make art from birth to death.
Glad that my writing doesn’t seem tricky to you. I like the fact that Raymond Carver had an index card above his desk that read: No Tricks. Although I’d probably amend that to No Poorly Executed Tricks, because really, it can be great once in a while to have someone pull a quarter out of your ear. That’s how I’ve amassed my personal fortune.
Your writing doesn’t seem tricky to me, either. I’d place it in the category of Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff or Joy Williams (especially her early short stories). Like these writers, you craft prose that has a bracing transparency. It’s a window through which a reader sees a fictional world sharply and clearly, and though the language is often beautiful, its beauty never calls too much attention to itself; it remains in service to the world(s) it describes.
Can you name a writer (I’m sure you can name many) whose approach seems completely different than your own, but whose work you love precisely because it’s so different?
Right, it’s hard for me to imagine what so many losses are like – mine all came at the usual predictable times. In fact, most of my friends and coevals are STILL alive. Also, I’m an only child, so I don’t know what it’s like to have siblings or what it’s like to lose them.
I’ve always loved those early Steve Reich pieces – you’re talking about ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and ‘Come Out’, I assume. And I don’t NOT love what electronica I’ve heard. I guess I’m just old-school enough to prefer natural sounds and textures – within which category I include the electric guitar, the Hammond B3 organ and the Fender Rhodes piano, which of course are no more natural than any of the electrowheeps and cyberwhaps in electronica.
The Huebler piece sounds interesting – but so much damn work. I’m glad I don’t need airplanes and football fields and magnesium flares to do my work. (Just a simple computer, which I couldn’t build myself if I were a million monkeys given a million years.) Something tells me I’m just as moved by reading your account of it as I would be seeing the thing. Then again, I’m generally not as receptive to the visual as I am to the audible, or the readable.
Thanks for the kind words about my prose – I suppose I have my tricks and hot licks, but I do try to keep them decently under control. And of course as soon as I recognize them as such, they have to go. That transparent window IS what I want, though I also want it to sound like a million bucks.
I can’t think of a writer whose work I love BECAUSE it’s different from mine, but I certainly love Dickens, who seems to me about as remote as you can get. P.G. Wodehouse. Keats. Shakespeare. The hell of it is, I think I’m the last one to know what my stuff might be like. I often have Samuel Beckett in my ear – also Amy Hempel – also Ann Beattie – also Samuel Johnson – but I doubt anybody would think I sound much like any of them, except possibly for Ann. Sort of like doing karaoke: you sound great until they cut off the backing track, and then it’s just you. I admire the writers you mention, and I hope I DO sound like them.
Let me turn that question around – do you have any such writers? W.H. Auden used to play a parlour game (it might only have been a conceptual parlour game) he called Purgatory Mates: you’re stuck in Purgatory with someone who’s your complete opposite and have to find a way to make peace, come to terms, and finally appreciate that other. (One example he gives, I think, is Kierkegaard and Sydney Smith.) Do you have any literary Purgatory Mates? Or for that matter, non-literary ones? (Remember – Purgatory, not Hell, so you wouldn’t be stuck with the absolute unacceptables, like Ted Cruz.)
David, you don’t need to fly over your manuscript? Every afternoon I hire a helicopter so I can look down on the pages (or more likely, the single paragraph) that I’ve written, and hopefully gain some objectivity about what I’ve produced!
And yes, works of conceptual art are often tantamount to their descriptions, so once you’ve heard the idea, there’s not much reason to see the work. In the ‘70s though, there was something thrilling about art that wasn’t embodied in an object – anyone could own a concept, and some forms of conceptual art entirely bypassed the imperatives of commerce, which is hard to imagine these days given the astronomical sums paid for art, and given the juggernaut that is the art market.
You got the two Reich pieces exactly right. I can tell you’re a musician because you created the words ‘electrowheeps’ and ‘cyberwhaps,’ for which I thank you.
Wyston, that cad! Purgatory Mates is a diabolical parlour game! My answer may seem self-effacing, but I would be the most challenging purgatory mate for myself. It’s easy for me to admire writers whose sensibility and style is remote from my own. I respond longingly to their work because I feel I could never do what they do as well as they do it. Since I admire the precision and clarity of your work, you would make a good, i.e. bad, purgatory mate. Reckoning with a different kind of writer would be a pleasure. I’d be surprised by their writerly instincts, whereas I can second guess my own. I’d be forced out of my habitual ways of seeing the world, whereas I’m often acutely aware of my creative limitations. Lorrie Moore once spoke about how much she disliked it when students thought they could win her approval by adopting her style; the last thing she wanted to see was writing that resembled (or imitated) her own. It would take me a long, long time – a purgatorial amount of time – to clearly perceive and eventually accept my own point of view.
And your purgatory mate, Mister Gates?
The writer as helicopter parent, eh? I recognize the syndrome. It’s why I don’t have a book out in the twenty-first century, though that should at last be remedied next year.
Since we’ve been talking about conceptual art, maybe my Purgatory Mate would be Borges – who, instead of writing Don Quixote from scratch, writes about a writer (the fictive Pierre Menard) who writes Don Quixote from scratch. Or maybe it would be some prolific, large-spirited, socially righteous, absolutely sincere novelist with a lush prose style – Charles Dickens, say, so I don’t have to name names among the living. One thing I know: it wouldn’t be you, Bernard. It would take me five minutes to sell you on Charley Patton, it would take you five minutes to sell me on The Purple Wow Sound, and we’d use up another five praising Raymond Carver and Joy Williams. End of conversation, and with eons to go.