Why don’t I do more writer interviews?

A reader wrote to ask why I don’t do more writer interviews. Good question. To do an interview with a writer, a bunch of things have to align:

1) I have to like their book.

2) So far I’ve only done face-to-face interviews, which means the writer and I have to occupy the same geographic space. Since I live in Tucson, this usually means “Arizona.” Since Tucson is a literary dead zone, this effectively means “Phoenix,” which is itself hardly a mecca for the written word; Phoenix is a cesspool of reality TV stars and those who aspire to be reality TV stars, people still stuck after the get-rich-quick real-estate atmosphere of the ’00s, and hard-core Republicans. And ASU students. None of those demographic groups are noted for their literary proclivity. There is a very nice bookstore named Changing Hands, however, which does attract a lot of writers, but Phoenix is still the sort of place touring writers maybe go to, as opposed to somewhere like Seattle or New York, where pretty much all of them go.

3) I have know they will be in Arizona, or wherever I am. This is harder than it sounds; booktour.com closed, and I don’t have the energy to track every living author I admire.

4) The writer has to have time for the interview, and their publisher has to be cooperative. For example, last Wednesday John Green of The Fault in Our Stars was in Phoenix, but Dutton Juvenile, his publisher, ignored the calls and e-mails I sent. This is pretty curious, since from what I can tell Green is on a publicity tour, but I also can’t control what publishers do.

(By the way: The Fault in Our Stars is good. Stick with it; the characters are slightly annoying over the first 30 or 40 pages, but they find their groove.)

5) My schedule has to work out. No one pays me to do interviews. If something else is going on—especially if that something else involves someone giving me money—I can’t do the interview even if I’d like to. This week I’ve been doing lots of paid consulting, trying to escape academic purgatory, teaching, and finishing query letters. Along with all the other stuff normal people do, like food, sex, and beer, which are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

6) As a corollary to four, I do take a lot of time preparing for interviews: reading their book(s), trying to think up decent questions, reading other interviews so I don’t ask the same dumbass questions they’ve already been asked a million times, and so forth. So if I find a book kind of okay but not really interesting, I don’t seek the interview, which means there aren’t a huge number of opportunities at any given time.

Why don't I do more writer interviews?

A reader wrote to ask why I don’t do more writer interviews. Good question. To do an interview with a writer, a bunch of things have to align:

1) I have to like their book.

2) So far I’ve only done face-to-face interviews, which means the writer and I have to occupy the same geographic space. Since I live in Tucson, this usually means “Arizona.” Since Tucson is a literary dead zone, this effectively means “Phoenix,” which is itself hardly a mecca for the written word; Phoenix is a cesspool of reality TV stars and those who aspire to be reality TV stars, people still stuck after the get-rich-quick real-estate atmosphere of the ’00s, and hard-core Republicans. And ASU students. None of those demographic groups are noted for their literary proclivity. There is a very nice bookstore named Changing Hands, however, which does attract a lot of writers, but Phoenix is still the sort of place touring writers maybe go to, as opposed to somewhere like Seattle or New York, where pretty much all of them go.

3) I have know they will be in Arizona, or wherever I am. This is harder than it sounds; booktour.com closed, and I don’t have the energy to track every living author I admire.

4) The writer has to have time for the interview, and their publisher has to be cooperative. For example, last Wednesday John Green of The Fault in Our Stars was in Phoenix, but Dutton Juvenile, his publisher, ignored the calls and e-mails I sent. This is pretty curious, since from what I can tell Green is on a publicity tour, but I also can’t control what publishers do.

(By the way: The Fault in Our Stars is good. Stick with it; the characters are slightly annoying over the first 30 or 40 pages, but they find their groove.)

5) My schedule has to work out. No one pays me to do interviews. If something else is going on—especially if that something else involves someone giving me money—I can’t do the interview even if I’d like to. This week I’ve been doing lots of paid consulting, trying to escape academic purgatory, teaching, and finishing query letters. Along with all the other stuff normal people do, like food, sex, and beer, which are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

6) As a corollary to four, I do take a lot of time preparing for interviews: reading their book(s), trying to think up decent questions, reading other interviews so I don’t ask the same dumbass questions they’ve already been asked a million times, and so forth. So if I find a book kind of okay but not really interesting, I don’t seek the interview, which means there aren’t a huge number of opportunities at any given time.

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist Interview: Part II

You can find part I of the interview here, including the context of this interview.

Jake Seliger: [Ideological conformity] seems like one of the conflicts between Beverley, who I think is homeschooling all of her children, and the—

Brady Udall: Right, Roland and Rose-of-Sharon, when all the other kids are at public school.

JS: Where they’re known as what Rusty is very aware of—as a Plig kid, which has a pretty obvious negative connotation.

BU: Polygamists face these kinds of feelings almost anywhere they live.

JS: It reminds me of—I went to high school outside of Seattle [in Bellevue, for those of you wondering]. At my high school, we had a relatively large Mormon population. There were also some—not a lot, but some—mainline Christians. The mainline Christians often thought the Mormons weren’t real Christians.

BU: Sure.

JS: And the Mormons would sometimes be a little, well—I mean, most of us were busy drinking and taking SATs and having sex, but—

BU: But that goes on and on. We’re out trying to convert the Baptists, and the Baptists are saying we’re not Christians. There’s going to be those conflicts everywhere. And more. Those conflicts exist in my own marriage. You know, it’s me and one wife. I just can’t imagine—you put two or three more wives in there.

JS: There’s also this establishment of what Golden’s life feels like. Early on, there’s a section that says, “Normally there would’ve been a crush of children waiting at the door, all of them shouting at once, pulling his clothes and asking what he brought them. The little ones standing on their heads, displaying some new bruise. Look at me! Look at me!” That little interjection there—look at me, look at me—is a lot of what’s going on among the children and among the wives. The wives are hanging back, waiting for their chance to lay claim on him, almost like he’s a piece of land. Just that phrase, “to lay claim on him—”

BU: Yeah, well that’s exactly it. The active verb is not his—it belongs to everybody else. And so he becomes more of a figurehead.

JS: Right.

BU: He’s like the president, you know what I mean? He is who you want him to be. But there’s a person there.

JS: When we enter his consciousness, we see his point of view, and he’s not really—he’s less concerned about dealing with each individual child and more concerned with Huila. He’s concerned the construction site. He’s concerned with his wives. It seems like the children are more concerned about him in many ways, than vice-versa.

BU: Yeah. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with anybody individually. And I really wonder sometimes if the person who exists who can do this. You know what I mean? Maybe there is. I don’t know.

JS: It’s hard to wear the crown. Even if you want to be the king.

BU: I guess so. I just don’t know that this could be done. I don’t know where the cutoff. I was one of nine kids. My Dad did the best he could. But is it enough? What does a kid need? I’m not sure. I think it’s a pretty interesting question, actually. Most cultures, you know, want you to have more kids. Now we have two. Has it gotten any better? Have parents gotten better? Do kids become, you know, more mature, better readers now? It doesn’t seem like it. You know what I mean? I don’t know. . .

JS: What’s ideal. Or if there is such a thing.

BU: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think there is. We’re telling ourselves that we think we know. It’s better to have fewer kids. I just went and said, is 28 obviously too many? I don’t know. It’s a good question.

JS: The issue of children is present because—in the interview you did with Powell’s Books, you said your characters were like having children. So what’s it like, then, having a child in the form of Golden, who’s in turn dealing with all the rest of these children?

BU: That’s a good question. As a writer, that’s very difficult. I look at myself as kind of a Golden. I put myself in his place, and I’d be like, “Damn.” So as a writer, dealing with all these characters, trying to keep track of them all, trying to understand what all their motivations are—it’s just a huge, daunting task. That’s why I write 1,400 pages. It was hard. But I guess I just wanted to do it right. And I had to go all out. I couldn’t do it halfway. I couldn’t easily. . .

JS: Abandon your literary children?

BU: I could have, you know, ten children. It would’ve made things easier, with only two wives, or three.

JS: But that would probably be less chaotic feeling.

BU: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—that really big family. Because, you know, when I grew up, it was a family that wasn’t polygamous, but there were 16 kids. So it still happens. I want to go beyond anything that could naturally happen, in a regular American household. And it does, in polygamous households, around this country.

JS: Sixteen children goes back to the old Groucho Marx quote, I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.

BU: [Laughing.] I haven’t heard that one.

JS: I’m surprised. It seems appropriate.

BU: It seems applicable, doesn’t it? I should mention that one to my Dad.

JS: Yeah.

BU: And we have versions of that, but yeah. But sometimes you wonder why. You see people with all these kids and sometimes the first question you want to ask is, “Why?”

JS: If you have a religious injunction against birth control, that’s where some of the culture gets going—

BU: That’s right, that’s right. And that’s an important part of all this. And you probably remember that Golden looks at the thing, the condoms, I remember the thing—it was imbued with the power of dark and benevolent Gods, or something like that, like a ring in a fantasy novel.

JS: That’s not at all how I view you. You know, you go into Rite Aid to buy 20—

BU: You know, with 28 kids—it’s such a possibility that’s not even available to you. That was the question—why would women have so many children? Well, that’s the whole point.

JS: Yet at the same time, that’s ultimately the tipping point for Trish to cheat.

BU: Absolutely.

JS: Because feels he’s not going to get the job done.

BU: He’s not going to get the job done. And that’s a very simple equation. You’re right. Their desires are at cross purposes. She wants to increase the family. He’s scared of the family. He doesn’t want it to increase anymore.

JS: He also has a million other things that are concerning him.

BU: Anyway, so that works out. That kind of conflict. That’s what story is. Put two characters in the same place with different desires, and that’s a story.

JS: I feel like I just walked into the Brady Udall creative writing seminar—

BU: Yes, yes, this is creative writing class.

JS: How do your students respond when you tell them variations on that theme?

BU: Well, they listen, but I don’t know if they always act. I just try to make it sound simple. They don’t seem to always believe me, that it’s that simple.

JS: It reminds me of your comment—I think you said, that’s the only thing worth addressing in literature—death and how we deal with the loss of people we care about.

BU: That’s right.

JS: Obviously, a fair amount of that comes in here. It sounds like you’re channeling Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel. So my question would be, why death? Why not the love half of that as well?

BU: Well, obviously, there’s love and death. And love is the only thing that can overcome death. I think Fiedler talks about that. I’m just more interested in the death part. And the reason death is so meaningful is because of love. It all becomes the same thing. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t love the people who go [I wonder if science fiction is exploring this space], who disappear from our lives. So love is a huge part of that. It’s not just death. I’m not as interested in romantic love. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just not a romantic person. I tend to leave that out. Even in this book, there’s certain kinds of romance going on, but I think it’s clear I’m not as interested in it. So it’s probably just a personal thing.

JS: Right. And the characters—they all seem to be driven by desire, but often not by desire for the person who they should want to desire.

BU: Right.

JS: You see that with Golden—

BU: We use other people to escape the people we should be with.

JS: Part of Rusty’s problem is his age, part is because of his circumstances—there is no one for him. No one who would be appropriate for him.

BU: Right. It’s totally true. His desires are totally inappropriate.

JS: And yet they make sense within the context.

BU: Sure. But if you think about it—for any 11-year-old kid, everything’s pretty much inappropriate. There’s no appropriate anything. Like most 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boys, he’s in a bad place.

JS: He’s in a particularly bad place, because even if he has an object of affection, and she’s another polygamist, she’s pretty strictly controlled.

BU: And June, June is kicked out. His group, someone shows affection for a certain girl, and that’s out of bounds.

JS: It seems like in some cases it would actually be harder for the girls to rebel. There’s a fairly strong hold to try to keep them. . .

BU: Absolutely. It’s almost impossible.

JS: So I don’t know what it would take, if you were a 16- or 18-year-old girl, to say, “Fuck this,”—

BU: “I don’t want this.”

JS: Do you have to call 911? Can you call 911?

BU: It’s much more difficult. It’s such an almost, I don’t want to say it’s wonderful. It is a great irony. In certain ways, the female has more power. It’s interesting stuff.

JS: The power of no, which it seems like they have.

BU: It’s power in a way, because they have a commodity. Which is horrible, obviously. They’re the ones, if you have five, six, seven wives, the more righteous and powerful you are. . . but the women become a commodity, and therefore have significant power.

JS: Assuming they manage to exercise it.

BU: Yeah, if they figure out how to do that.

JS: I believe there are a couple of older teenager girls in the novel.

BU: Sure.

JS: I love, by the way, the little family web at the front of the novel.

BU: Right, I made them do it. They wanted to just list it, but I made them do it that way.

JS: The thing is, instead of being a family tree, there’s a family web, with Golden at the center.

BU: Golden had to be at the center. That’s the whole point of it. That’s exactly the place he does not want to be.

JS: So it’s obviously not their story, but we don’t hear as much from those girls, the older kids. Em and Nephi are getting towards—

BU: If you remember, Em comes and stays with Trish for a while. She dresses up. She dances to the Beejees. But Beverley comes and shuts it down. So she has a little moment where she feels free, though.

JS: Perhaps Beverley is doing that because Beverley is thinking back to her own past.

BU: Yeah, sure. It’s the worst thing that she can see her daughter doing. Going anywhere near that sort of lifestyle. The world, or whatever.

JS: Here are some of my big, standard questions: What question do you wish interviews would ask and they never do?

BU: [Laughs.] Well. I wish I had a good, quick quip for that one, but I don’t.

JS: All right, I’ll give you my card. If you think of an answer, send me an e-mail.

BU: You probably want a real answer, and I don’t have one.

JS: Any kind of answer is okay.

BU: I get asked mostly about—you know. The same stuff. You do a good job, because you’re not asking all the same questions. You usually have to answer the same questions over and over again.

JS: Any time I interview a writer, I try to read at least a couple of other interviews so I don’t go over the same territory.

BU: Yes, and you’ve done a good job, sort of—what I like is talking about the book. Too often it’s about—and you see this in criticism—is a focus on the writer as opposed to the work. Which I have to say—I think it’s nearly useless. But people seem to find it interesting. That’s why there’s a magazine called People.

JS: People always ask you, “Do you use a Mac, or do you use a PC?”

BU: That’s right. They want to know. You know, I understand.

JS: I did see in one of your interviews, you said you like old typewriters.

BU: I don’t use a typewriter.

JS: Have you ever gotten a—for a while I used a keyboard called an IBM Model M, which is from the 80s. It’s got a very clicky. [We trade e-mail addresses.]

BU: I love that. The keyboard I have is that chunk, chunk-chunk chunk. You have to whack the keys to get it to respond.

JS: Do you have any final thoughts or things I should know?

BU: No, I don’t think so. I do appreciate the focus on the book, and the characters.

JS: I tried to talk about the language some.

BU: Language is very important to me. I’m trying to do two things at once. I don’t want the reader to notice the language, most of the time. But I’m trying to make language that’s, I don’t know, extraordinary. I don’t want it to disappear. I want the reader to sometimes go, “Wow.” To be moved by the language as much as the story itself. So that’s what most writers, anyway, look for—the Holy Grail. To have it both ways.

JS: I remember Stephen King, when someone said, “I want to be a writer,” or something like that, said, “Do you love sentences?”

BU: I love that. I love it. In the end, that’s all we have as writers. We just have words and sentences. We have nothing else. We don’t have pictures.

JS: Well—

BU: Yeah, you could. I mean, I might try that sometime. It might be easier than doing sentences. But I tell my students, you have to care for the sentence. You have to really care. Or your work’s not going to be worth that damn.

JS: I guess your last comment is, love sentences. I think that’s appropriate.

BU: Yeah, I like that. That’s appropriate.


No answer as to whether he got a different keyboard in response to this interview.

Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist Interview: Part II

You can find part I of the interview here, including the context of this interview.

Jake Seliger: [Ideological conformity] seems like one of the conflicts between Beverley, who I think is homeschooling all of her children, and the—

Brady Udall: Right, Roland and Rose-of-Sharon, when all the other kids are at public school.

JS: Where they’re known as what Rusty is very aware of—as a Plig kid, which has a pretty obvious negative connotation.

BU: Polygamists face these kinds of feelings almost anywhere they live.

JS: It reminds me of—I went to high school outside of Seattle [in Bellevue, for those of you wondering]. At my high school, we had a relatively large Mormon population. There were also some—not a lot, but some—mainline Christians. The mainline Christians often thought the Mormons weren’t real Christians.

BU: Sure.

JS: And the Mormons would sometimes be a little, well—I mean, most of us were busy drinking and taking SATs and having sex, but—

BU: But that goes on and on. We’re out trying to convert the Baptists, and the Baptists are saying we’re not Christians. There’s going to be those conflicts everywhere. And more. Those conflicts exist in my own marriage. You know, it’s me and one wife. I just can’t imagine—you put two or three more wives in there.

JS: There’s also this establishment of what Golden’s life feels like. Early on, there’s a section that says, “Normally there would’ve been a crush of children waiting at the door, all of them shouting at once, pulling his clothes and asking what he brought them. The little ones standing on their heads, displaying some new bruise. Look at me! Look at me!” That little interjection there—look at me, look at me—is a lot of what’s going on among the children and among the wives. The wives are hanging back, waiting for their chance to lay claim on him, almost like he’s a piece of land. Just that phrase, “to lay claim on him—”

BU: Yeah, well that’s exactly it. The active verb is not his—it belongs to everybody else. And so he becomes more of a figurehead.

JS: Right.

BU: He’s like the president, you know what I mean? He is who you want him to be. But there’s a person there.

JS: When we enter his consciousness, we see his point of view, and he’s not really—he’s less concerned about dealing with each individual child and more concerned with Huila. He’s concerned the construction site. He’s concerned with his wives. It seems like the children are more concerned about him in many ways, than vice-versa.

BU: Yeah. He doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with anybody individually. And I really wonder sometimes if the person who exists who can do this. You know what I mean? Maybe there is. I don’t know.

JS: It’s hard to wear the crown. Even if you want to be the king.

BU: I guess so. I just don’t know that this could be done. I don’t know where the cutoff. I was one of nine kids. My Dad did the best he could. But is it enough? What does a kid need? I’m not sure. I think it’s a pretty interesting question, actually. Most cultures, you know, want you to have more kids. Now we have two. Has it gotten any better? Have parents gotten better? Do kids become, you know, more mature, better readers now? It doesn’t seem like it. You know what I mean? I don’t know. . .

JS: What’s ideal. Or if there is such a thing.

BU: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think there is. We’re telling ourselves that we think we know. It’s better to have fewer kids. I just went and said, is 28 obviously too many? I don’t know. It’s a good question.

JS: The issue of children is present because—in the interview you did with Powell’s Books, you said your characters were like having children. So what’s it like, then, having a child in the form of Golden, who’s in turn dealing with all the rest of these children?

BU: That’s a good question. As a writer, that’s very difficult. I look at myself as kind of a Golden. I put myself in his place, and I’d be like, “Damn.” So as a writer, dealing with all these characters, trying to keep track of them all, trying to understand what all their motivations are—it’s just a huge, daunting task. That’s why I write 1,400 pages. It was hard. But I guess I just wanted to do it right. And I had to go all out. I couldn’t do it halfway. I couldn’t easily. . .

JS: Abandon your literary children?

BU: I could have, you know, ten children. It would’ve made things easier, with only two wives, or three.

JS: But that would probably be less chaotic feeling.

BU: Yeah, that’s what I really wanted—that really big family. Because, you know, when I grew up, it was a family that wasn’t polygamous, but there were 16 kids. So it still happens. I want to go beyond anything that could naturally happen, in a regular American household. And it does, in polygamous households, around this country.

JS: Sixteen children goes back to the old Groucho Marx quote, I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.

BU: [Laughing.] I haven’t heard that one.

JS: I’m surprised. It seems appropriate.

BU: It seems applicable, doesn’t it? I should mention that one to my Dad.

JS: Yeah.

BU: And we have versions of that, but yeah. But sometimes you wonder why. You see people with all these kids and sometimes the first question you want to ask is, “Why?”

JS: If you have a religious injunction against birth control, that’s where some of the culture gets going—

BU: That’s right, that’s right. And that’s an important part of all this. And you probably remember that Golden looks at the thing, the condoms, I remember the thing—it was imbued with the power of dark and benevolent Gods, or something like that, like a ring in a fantasy novel.

JS: That’s not at all how I view you. You know, you go into Rite Aid to buy 20—

BU: You know, with 28 kids—it’s such a possibility that’s not even available to you. That was the question—why would women have so many children? Well, that’s the whole point.

JS: Yet at the same time, that’s ultimately the tipping point for Trish to cheat.

BU: Absolutely.

JS: Because feels he’s not going to get the job done.

BU: He’s not going to get the job done. And that’s a very simple equation. You’re right. Their desires are at cross purposes. She wants to increase the family. He’s scared of the family. He doesn’t want it to increase anymore.

JS: He also has a million other things that are concerning him.

BU: Anyway, so that works out. That kind of conflict. That’s what story is. Put two characters in the same place with different desires, and that’s a story.

JS: I feel like I just walked into the Brady Udall creative writing seminar—

BU: Yes, yes, this is creative writing class.

JS: How do your students respond when you tell them variations on that theme?

BU: Well, they listen, but I don’t know if they always act. I just try to make it sound simple. They don’t seem to always believe me, that it’s that simple.

JS: It reminds me of your comment—I think you said, that’s the only thing worth addressing in literature—death and how we deal with the loss of people we care about.

BU: That’s right.

JS: Obviously, a fair amount of that comes in here. It sounds like you’re channeling Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel. So my question would be, why death? Why not the love half of that as well?

BU: Well, obviously, there’s love and death. And love is the only thing that can overcome death. I think Fiedler talks about that. I’m just more interested in the death part. And the reason death is so meaningful is because of love. It all becomes the same thing. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t love the people who go [I wonder if science fiction is exploring this space], who disappear from our lives. So love is a huge part of that. It’s not just death. I’m not as interested in romantic love. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just not a romantic person. I tend to leave that out. Even in this book, there’s certain kinds of romance going on, but I think it’s clear I’m not as interested in it. So it’s probably just a personal thing.

JS: Right. And the characters—they all seem to be driven by desire, but often not by desire for the person who they should want to desire.

BU: Right.

JS: You see that with Golden—

BU: We use other people to escape the people we should be with.

JS: Part of Rusty’s problem is his age, part is because of his circumstances—there is no one for him. No one who would be appropriate for him.

BU: Right. It’s totally true. His desires are totally inappropriate.

JS: And yet they make sense within the context.

BU: Sure. But if you think about it—for any 11-year-old kid, everything’s pretty much inappropriate. There’s no appropriate anything. Like most 11-, 12-, 13-year-old boys, he’s in a bad place.

JS: He’s in a particularly bad place, because even if he has an object of affection, and she’s another polygamist, she’s pretty strictly controlled.

BU: And June, June is kicked out. His group, someone shows affection for a certain girl, and that’s out of bounds.

JS: It seems like in some cases it would actually be harder for the girls to rebel. There’s a fairly strong hold to try to keep them. . .

BU: Absolutely. It’s almost impossible.

JS: So I don’t know what it would take, if you were a 16- or 18-year-old girl, to say, “Fuck this,”—

BU: “I don’t want this.”

JS: Do you have to call 911? Can you call 911?

BU: It’s much more difficult. It’s such an almost, I don’t want to say it’s wonderful. It is a great irony. In certain ways, the female has more power. It’s interesting stuff.

JS: The power of no, which it seems like they have.

BU: It’s power in a way, because they have a commodity. Which is horrible, obviously. They’re the ones, if you have five, six, seven wives, the more righteous and powerful you are. . . but the women become a commodity, and therefore have significant power.

JS: Assuming they manage to exercise it.

BU: Yeah, if they figure out how to do that.

JS: I believe there are a couple of older teenager girls in the novel.

BU: Sure.

JS: I love, by the way, the little family web at the front of the novel.

BU: Right, I made them do it. They wanted to just list it, but I made them do it that way.

JS: The thing is, instead of being a family tree, there’s a family web, with Golden at the center.

BU: Golden had to be at the center. That’s the whole point of it. That’s exactly the place he does not want to be.

JS: So it’s obviously not their story, but we don’t hear as much from those girls, the older kids. Em and Nephi are getting towards—

BU: If you remember, Em comes and stays with Trish for a while. She dresses up. She dances to the Beejees. But Beverley comes and shuts it down. So she has a little moment where she feels free, though.

JS: Perhaps Beverley is doing that because Beverley is thinking back to her own past.

BU: Yeah, sure. It’s the worst thing that she can see her daughter doing. Going anywhere near that sort of lifestyle. The world, or whatever.

JS: Here are some of my big, standard questions: What question do you wish interviews would ask and they never do?

BU: [Laughs.] Well. I wish I had a good, quick quip for that one, but I don’t.

JS: All right, I’ll give you my card. If you think of an answer, send me an e-mail.

BU: You probably want a real answer, and I don’t have one.

JS: Any kind of answer is okay.

BU: I get asked mostly about—you know. The same stuff. You do a good job, because you’re not asking all the same questions. You usually have to answer the same questions over and over again.

JS: Any time I interview a writer, I try to read at least a couple of other interviews so I don’t go over the same territory.

BU: Yes, and you’ve done a good job, sort of—what I like is talking about the book. Too often it’s about—and you see this in criticism—is a focus on the writer as opposed to the work. Which I have to say—I think it’s nearly useless. But people seem to find it interesting. That’s why there’s a magazine called People.

JS: People always ask you, “Do you use a Mac, or do you use a PC?”

BU: That’s right. They want to know. You know, I understand.

JS: I did see in one of your interviews, you said you like old typewriters.

BU: I don’t use a typewriter.

JS: Have you ever gotten a—for a while I used a keyboard called an IBM Model M, which is from the 80s. It’s got a very clicky. [We trade e-mail addresses.]

BU: I love that. The keyboard I have is that chunk, chunk-chunk chunk. You have to whack the keys to get it to respond.

JS: Do you have any final thoughts or things I should know?

BU: No, I don’t think so. I do appreciate the focus on the book, and the characters.

JS: I tried to talk about the language some.

BU: Language is very important to me. I’m trying to do two things at once. I don’t want the reader to notice the language, most of the time. But I’m trying to make language that’s, I don’t know, extraordinary. I don’t want it to disappear. I want the reader to sometimes go, “Wow.” To be moved by the language as much as the story itself. So that’s what most writers, anyway, look for—the Holy Grail. To have it both ways.

JS: I remember Stephen King, when someone said, “I want to be a writer,” or something like that, said, “Do you love sentences?”

BU: I love that. I love it. In the end, that’s all we have as writers. We just have words and sentences. We have nothing else. We don’t have pictures.

JS: Well—

BU: Yeah, you could. I mean, I might try that sometime. It might be easier than doing sentences. But I tell my students, you have to care for the sentence. You have to really care. Or your work’s not going to be worth that damn.

JS: I guess your last comment is, love sentences. I think that’s appropriate.

BU: Yeah, I like that. That’s appropriate.


No answer as to whether he got a different keyboard in response to this interview.

Brady Udall Interview for The Lonely Polygamist: Part I

Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, follows a suite of characters orbiting around Golden Richards, a polygamist with four wives and more than two dozen children who is trying to keep his construction business afloat and manage a family that practically requires an MBA due to its size. The novel shies away from overt religious discussion and towards the day-to-day comic combat necessary to merely the family together and functional.

This interview was conducted in May 2010 at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. Although this is an incredibly lame comment, it’s nonetheless true that I simply forgot to post it when other issues arose. It’s here now, however. As we got started, Udall mentioned Daughter of the Saints: Growing Up in Polygamy by Dorothy Allred Solomon.

Udall reminded me of someone slightly too small and far too wary to make it on a high school football team. He spoke with a paradoxical mix of certainty and exploration. The first half of the interview is below.

Jake Seliger: I was listening to Bookworm on the way up here. It’s a radio show on KCRW, and Michael Silverblatt was talking to Michael Cunningham, and Silverblatt said Cunningham’s book was really about the primal relationship between fathers and sons. I heard that and thought to myself, “That’s a lot of what’s going on in The Lonely Polygamist as well,” except I was too dense to notice it the first time through.

Brady Udall: There’s a lot of distractions. Right? There’s no doubt that one of the things I was interested is that Golden, the main character, is an only child abandoned by his father. And then, he manages to have 28 children of his own.

JS: Almost overcompensating.

BU: Yes, yes. But is no better a father because of it. And I think that’s where I’m interested. Numbers have nothing to do with it, really. It’s just there’s something in men—and this is a gross generalization, but we have difficulty taking care of our obligations, emotionally. That’s part of what the book is about: Golden’s not up to taking care of his obligations emotionally.

JS: He seems unable to deal with his emotions in relation to Royal [Golden’s father]. It seems that there’s this Royal-Golden-Rusty [Golden’s son]—I don’t want to call the eternal golden braid, but—

BU: Yeah, you look at the names and there’s something going on. There’s definitely something there, and somewhere in the book I talk about the curse of the father. And we all live with that in some way or another.

JS: Sometimes the absent father, too.

BU: Yeah. So that’s definitely part of what I was doing.

JS: You mentioned that it’s not an issue of numbers, but it seems like there’s something going on—when you scale a family from, say, a two-person couple, to four children, to twenty-eight children, it seems like something has to change there. There’s a passage about that I wrote down somewhere—I can’t find it right now—

BU: Well, I don’t know what it says, but it might be the passage that says something about, when you have 28 children, and you’re a father, you have to try to treat them all equally. Which is nearly impossible. Because he’s not up to the task—if you pat one kid on the head, then everybody’s going to have to have a pat on the head—at some point you can’t balance—

JS: It’s a matter of time.

BU: Yes. He’s just not up to the challenge. He doesn’t know how to manage this. Could he have managed it with three or four children? Maybe, I don’t know.

JS: It’s funny that you use the word “manage,” because it seems like at this scale you almost need to have a managerial mindset.

BU: You have to be a logistical genius of some kind.

JS: And it’s strange, because there’s section on page 21—early in the novel, and Golden says that “whenever he walked into one of his houses he felt more than ever like a stranger, an outlander unfamiliar with the customs of the place.” It seems like you almost have to be unfamiliar with the customs of a place if you’re doing this rotation.

BU: The thing I’d say about that, those houses aren’t his. The family is a stranger. The wives are controlling the houses. He’s just an intruder in some ways. And it makes some sense because at the center of everything, yet he’s on the outside of it all. Which I think is cool.

JS: It’s interesting too that you use that kind of language—the center of everything but outside of it all—because to my mind I almost hear an aspect of the religious part of the novel, because religion seems to influence everything that’s going on, and yet it doesn’t seem as constant a presence. So it’s like the center that’s also outside. I don’t know if you agree or not, but that’s what I was hearing.

BU: Religion dominates these people’s lives, but I try to avoid it as much as possible.

JS: Which you succeeded at.

BU: I tried to, so if I include that I’m going to have to write a book that’s 2,000 pages long.

JS: You said in another interview that this one started out at 1,400—

BU: Fourteen, and I did address some of the religious or spiritual stuff. But really what I’m interested in is really—and I’ve said it before—how, how do you do it? How does somebody manage this? And there’s enough there to easily fill 1,400 pages. Some of the more esoteric stuff got left out.

JS: I think when I was coming in, I expected religion to be more front and center, and more important than interpersonal politics. Maybe it’s unfair. I don’t know if my perception is off—I might be unfairly stereotyping a lot of these people.

BU: If you think about it, even for religious people, who would take their religion very seriously, the religion disappears in some ways. It’s just their life. And so when you write fiction, that’s what you tend to focus on—the details of everyday life. How people live, how people interact, is what I think as a fiction writer you really have to think about. That’s going to make interesting fiction. Ideas . . .

JS: Have to be embodied in the events—

BU: Right, right. You can’t—they talk about a novel of ideas. I don’t think there’s ever been a successful novel of ideas, to be honest with you. There’s no such thing. People make the attempt. I’ve always felt, if you’re going write about ideas, write an essay.

JS: Pick a different genre?

BU: Exactly.

JS: That’s funny, because I wrote this paper for one of my grad seminars on Melville’s Pierre, which—I don’t know what to call it besides being about ideas—

BU: I’ve never read it, so I don’t know.

JS: Because no one has read Melville after Moby-Dick, because he seems to—my academic adviser is a guy named Ed Dryden. He’s written a lot about Melville and argues that Melville wants to break with fiction after Moby-Dick.

BU: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard that. That’s why people don’t read Melville after Moby-Dick.

JS: Well, that’s how you get Pierre and Israel Potter and The Confidence Man, which are novels that as far as I can tell no one but academics read.

BU: I’ve read The Confidence Man, I can tell you that. I have virtually no memory of it.

JS: Maybe that says something if you have virtually no memory of it.

BU: Yeah.

JS: As far as religion goes, there’s also a book by a critic named J. Hillis Miller called The Disappearance of God. He argues that in the Nineteenth Century God basically goes from being an active presence in people’s lives in fiction to being an absent center.

BU: And it’s continued to this day. Not to ask you this question, but—

JS: Why not?

BU: Can you name any contemporary fiction writers who address God in the lives of people? It’s very rare.

JS: I wonder if they’re out there, but they’re being published by religious presses that I don’t read.

BU: It could be, but Flannery O’Connor was writing about this in a certain way.

JS: Or a lot of Catholic writers, like Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene.

BU: Jewish writers don’t tend to write a lot about God. And it’s weird because America’s such a religious place. We’re not Europe. We’re very religious, yet if you read fiction of the past 50, 70 years, you’d never have any idea we’re a religious place.

JS: Yeah, or at least mainstream fiction. A lot of the Jewish writers are dealing with Judaism and Jewish culture more.

BU: Right. They’re not dealing with God. And it’s because it’s difficult, that’s really why. Most writers—I feel the same way—don’t feel like they have the authority to deal with such a large subject. But it’s still disturbing to see the lack of people—religious people—in fiction. And very often they’re the villain. And I’m not religious, so I’m not defending this in any way. I’m not a religious person.

JS: It’s like Michael Chabon’s book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I don’t know if you’ve read it.

BU: Of course I’ve read it.

JS: The black hats, the Orthodox, are the villains.

BU: And he gets in trouble. Among Jews, he gets in trouble for his depiction.

JS: A little bit. But I don’t think he does like Philip Roth did—

BU: But people still get upset. I think one of the reason writers aren’t address it—if they don’t come from a religious background—I know this from experience—people get upset. If you’re going to depict the religion and religious people of that culture, they want you to depict it in a positive light. And if you don’t, they see it as betrayal.

JS: But it seems like people, oftentimes, whether they’re religious or not, reading about people in a positive light is boring. You want to read about foibles—

BU: That’s absolutely right. Life—fiction is about trouble. It’s about nastiness. It’s not about nice things. It never is.

JS: We have plenty of nastiness here—especially with Golden’s boss. Also with Rusty to some extent. Because he’s—

BU: He’s a little jerk. He’s not a kind—you know, there are idealized children in fiction. They’re education, they’re overly smart, they read in their spare time, I don’t know what. And you know, you don’t see that in real kids. A lot of them are little brats, like Rusty.

[Food shows up.]

Rusty’s a tough one.

JS: At the same time, he’s somewhat justified, and some of his behaviors are understandable. I mean, there’s the scene with his birthday party. And because there’s all these birthday parties—they get back to this individual / privacy issue. At that moment June says about Rusty, “I know he’s going to end up like me. No family, lost, wondering who he’s supposed to be with, what he’s supposed to do.” And it seems like a pretty accurate comment—this idea of lacking family or being lost. It’s easy to get lost in all these people.

BU: In families that large, you do get lost very easily. If you go along with the program, you’re okay, but some people aren’t cut out for that. You can be in trouble. And there’s no place for you. It’s especially true for the boys.

JS: Yeah. It never happens, but it seems like if Rusty were to go on, he’d be really lost, really wondering. Kind of like Golden.

BU: This happens to polygamous boys all the time. If you think about it, the math doesn’t work. There can’t be—all the boys can’t have four wives. All the men can’t have four wives. It just doesn’t work that way. So three out of those four men have to go somewhere else. They can’t hang around.

JS: It’s like what Tim Harford wrote about in The Logic of Life. He had a chapter called “The Marriage Supermarket,” where he develops a theoretical model of what happens if you have 20 men and 20 women who all want to marry. If you take one away from either side, the gender politics shift very rapidly. You can actually see stuff like this happening on college campuses, because now more women than men go to college.

BU: That’s right! It’s in our favor now. Well, too bad I’m not in school. You’ve got it better than we did.

JS: Yeah, and these shifts bring out different kinds of politics.

BU: It’s happening in China, where there are more boys born than girls. And that’s one of the inherent weaknesses of that culture—it’s just mathematics.

JS: And it’s a problem for the men and boys who will end up wandering, like Rusty probably will.

BU: You can end up with no place. You make one false move, you end up on the outs. That’s what happens.

JS: Even Golden growing up with his father, there was wandering for different reasons.

BU: There was a lot of unhappiness. And so there is a correlation between Golden and Rusty, obviously. I guess the way of thinking of it—it’s just easy to end up going over the edge.

JS: If Rusty gets away from the mob—if he survives—maybe he goes on.

BU: You could take it a long ways. Rusty’s sort of like the sacrificial lamb of the family. Somebody has to—something has to happen to bring this family back together. The one who doesn’t belong, is having the hardest time with the family—is the one who’s sacrificed for the greatest good.

JS: You have a feeling Rusty would not perceive it that way.

BU: No, no, the sacrificial virgin never does. It’s like, “Why me, man? Why am I getting thrown in the volcano? This sucks.”

JS: The issue of sacrifice is interesting to me. At the end—I think it’s the second-to-last page—we have Beverley’s voice, and she says, “She would spend the rest of her time tutoring Maureen and making peace with the other wives, to ensure that once she was gone the Richards family would soldier forward in harmony and righteousness until the promised day, on the others side of the vil, when they would be joined together again.” To me, I hear a lot of irony regarding what Bev really thinks, because if she really soldiers towards harmony and righteousness, that’s going to be a pretty big change.

BU: That’s true. The quote that I love—I just heard her say it—I don’t know if you know it—Mary Karr, she wrote The Liars’ Club—is that a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person. Once the numbers start going up more—

JS: The possible connections go up exponentially.

BU: It goes exponential. So the chances are, that they will soldier forward in harmony and righteousness, believe me, are just about nil. They just added, not only a wife, but two new kids to the family. Good luck to them.

JS: Wastrels, who’re happy to get away—

BU: They’ll just take Rusty’s place. So yeah, there’s The Liars’ Club.

JS: I get the impression from the passages that I’ve seen from Beverley’s consciousness, she probably believes that.

BU: Oh yeah, she does. You have to.

JS: It explains some of her obsessive ordering of the household too.

BU: In the background that she comes from, she believes that if you obey all the rules and in righteousness, having rules and regulations keep anarchy at bay. That’s what she strives for throughout the book. She’s right in some ways. I suppose what I’m saying is that you can try all you want.

JS: Too much order is as stifling as anarchy, and that might be what’s driving Rusty. He’s unhappy.

BU: And it probably drives the other wives, who don’t agree with her approach. So that’s why they’re all fighting with her, because they don’t go that far. Those wives are born and raised in the principle. She’s a newcomer to it. If you’re a convert to something, you get fired up.

JS: The convert’s zeal. There’s a section about it. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but the conflicts between Beverley and the others is a conflict between the first and the others. It’s hard because there has to be a disciplinarian, but no one likes the disciplinarian.

BU: Yeah.

JS: Yet there has to be one.

BU: I can tell you that in my family I’m the disciplinarian, and nobody likes me. My wife’s like, the super safe place to go. I’m like Nurse Ratchet or someone like that. It’s the oldest story in the world, I guess. In this case, it’s the wife.

JS: Because of Golden’s job, and because of how he rotates, in The Lonely Polygamist it would have to be the wife, or the wives, because he’s not there enough.

BU: That’s the truth about anything. Pierre and I were talking to this—a guy who’s gone all the time, working his ass off—he’s not going to be around to have much influence at all, positive or negative. Without influence there’s no power. So the only power he has is to pick his clothes every day. But I’ve seen it in these families.

JS: The power and the attention, because there’s so many children—

BU: Exactly. Because the kids know where the power is. You know what? I don’t think it would be that different if it was a family of four kids, and their father is gone all the time. The mother’s the one who has the influence. He’s not there, he doesn’t develop what he needs to. The entire story and situation—everything that’s true of a family of four or five people is just amplified four or five times. To me that’s interesting for the sake of seeing how far we can take this. For me, it makes things clearer. It helps you see what I’d call a regular family a little bit more clearly when you exaggerate more.

JS: Even regular families seem to be steadily declining, if we mean by that a mom and dad and 2.1 kids and a golden retriever. It’s a smaller proportion—

BU: Right. What I love—let me back up. I’ve put it this way before: what fascinates me about polygamy is that you can look at it as this alternative thing. Like gay marriage. Or you can look at it like this chauvinistic, terribly old-fashioned, ridiculous, unfair way to live. So you want to look at it.

JS: It probably depends in part on where you grow up, and whether you can really make an independent decision about where you want to live. It seems like not everyone grows up as a polygamist gets that.

BU: Most of the polygamist communities are closed, so it makes it hard for people to make their own choices. That’s not true of all polygamist families. But again, the same could be said of many cultures and subcultures in this country and around the world.

JS: You have ideological conformity.

BU: Exactly. Within family, within a neighborhood.

Tucker Max Interview — Assholes Finish First and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

Tucker Max wrote I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell and, most recently, Assholes Finish First , both of which chronicle his experiences drinking, hooking up, and behaving like a self-proclaimed asshole. Think of the stories your friends tell the morning after, except edited (to maximize hilarity) and in book form.

Here’s an example from “Fucked-Up Pillow Talk, Part 2,” which is like the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine, except for the subject matter:

—With some random girl who was really annoying:

Girl “Why don’t you last longer during sex? Ten minutes is not long enough for me.”
Tucker “I don’t understand. I lasted long enough for me to cum. Why would I go any longer?”
Girl “I want to cum too. What about me?”
Tucker “Who?”
Girl “Me.”
Tucker “Who are we talking about here?”
Girl “ME!”
Tucker “Who?”
Girl “I HATE YOU!”
Tucker “Who hates me?”

You can read other stories at TuckerMax.com. During the interview, Tucker’s friend, “Bunny” in Assholes Finish First, was present, along with Murph, his dog, and a bunch of law students from Arizona State University.

Jake Seliger: How’s your tour so far?

Tucker Max: Long and tiring but good.

JS: In another interview, you said that when you give speeches at colleges, you don’t tell stories and instead talk about what it is to live your dreams and take the path less traveled. So what is it to live your dreams, and what do you do, especially if you don’t know what your dreams are?

TM: Well you have to find out, don’t you? What I usually do in this speech—how old are you, dude?

JS: Twenty-six. I’m a grad student in English at the University of Arizona.

TM: All right, so—I need to get in interview mode.

JS: You don’t have to—it’s better to just do it like a conversation.

TM: I know, I’ve done this once or twice. So what I try to explain, when you’re an undergrad, generally you think you can do two things. You’re gonna have to get a job after you graduate or you gotta go do more school. Because everyone who’s giving you advice or telling you how to live your life are people who’ve done one of those two things. You don’t generally have anyone in your life who has gone out on their own and done something entrepreneurial or done something artistic or truly risky or truly taken the path less traveled, because those people—

JS: Aren’t in schools?

TM: —don’t work in academics. And don’t become cubicle monkeys. So what I try and explain in my speeches is that there’s a third way. Because a lot of people—I think most people—want to do something besides those two things. But they don’t really know how. They don’t know how to start, they don’t know how to get there, they don’t even know where to go. Unfortunately, there’s a map—if you want to stay in academia, it’s real fucking simple. There’s a map if you want to become a cubicle monkey. There’s no map for finding your dreams. There’s a process to it, and generally speaking, what you want to do, especially when you’re young, in college or right out of college when you have no debt, no responsibilities, no one relying on you, you’ve got all the freedom in the world. What you want to is experience as much as possible, see as much as possible, do as much as possible, hit as much as you can in the world. What you’re going to find are a whole list of things that you’re passionate about. And a whole list of things that you’re good at. And where those two circles overlap is where your life should fall. At least in terms of what you do for a living. And what you love and what creates value for other people. When you can find something that does both, that’s what you should focus on. That’s the sort of thing that people like me, people like Bunny, Tim Ferris, that’s what we did. We found a way to connect those two things. Taking that path is like a vision quest, so I can’t tell you, well, you need to be a surf coach in Brazil. What the fuck do I know, dude? I don’t know what your passion is, I don’t know what you’re good at, I don’t know what gets you up in the morning. I know generally how to approach that idea, and I know how hard it is, and I know the general things you’re going to have to overcome. But there is no map to that. And that’s what I try to explain in the speech.

JS: Your talk reminds me of Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, who observed that he’s not the funniest man in the world, and he’s not the best artist in the world, but he’s funnier than most people, and he’s a better artist than most people. And he combined those two things into Dilbert, and it worked really well for him.

TM: If I understand it correctly, it was a hard path. I don’t know his story real well, but if I remember correctly—I mean, here’s the problem. A lot of people who’ve succeeded either don’t remember or don’t understand how they got from where everyone else is to where they are.

JS: Or they make a narrative out of it, that takes out the ambiguity.

TM: They make the ex-post narrative, that simplifies it, and makes it look like it was inevitable. That’s not the way it works.

JS: Do you find that people who’re responding to your books create this kind of ex-post narrative?

TM: About me? Yeah, absolutely. Usually guys in their mid-twenties, 27 to 29, 30, whatever—

JS: That’s right where I am!

TM: Well, guys like that who read my stuff, there’s a certain type who—I’m not better looking, I’m not smarter, I’m not a better writer, but they’re stuck in a cubicle and I’m a star. And they get fuckin’ pissed off and can’t understand why—”Well, if I had a trust fund, I’d be able to do this.” I didn’t have a trust fund. I couldn’t eat for a couple years when I first started. I mean, you can ask [Bunny], who was my friend before anyone knew who I was in the world. There were times I was basically stealing food. And they’ll say—

JS: Hence the story about looking in the girl’s wallet?

[Laughter.]

TM: There were times, people are like, “Oh, well you already did it, if I had written my stories down—” dude, there is an unlimited market for funny stuff.

JS: It also helps to have a really strong sense of dialogue and pacing.

TM: My book agent, Byrd Leavell, estimates that he has seen 20,000 submissions since I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell came out in January of 2006. Twenty thousand submissions saying, “I’m the next Tucker Max, I’m the drunk Tucker Max, I’m the girl Tucker Max, I’m the monk Tucker Max, whatever.” Twenty thousand!

JS: Wait, I want to talk about the monk Tucker Max.

TM: But he hasn’t signed any of them, because they all suck as writers, or they’re not emotionally authentic, or it’s not funny, or whatever. People create all these narratives explaining away why they haven’t had the courage to take their personal path, or explaining away my success, or anyone else. Anyone who succeeds in anything, there’s always going to be people who don’t have the courage to do that. They get upset about it, either explain it away, or dismiss it away.

JS: It sounds like you almost found out by accident. In Assholes Finish First you say that when you and your friends graduated from law school, “We were slowly realizing that the ‘real life’ we’d chosen really fucking sucked. A lot.” Sounds like you’re trying to tell people how not to do that.

TM: As much as I’d like to sit here and be like, “Yeah, I had the courage to do all this stuff, and I had the vision to see where I was gonna go and I knew I would get there.” That’s fuckin’ bullshit. That’s not true. That’s the narrative I might tell when I’m 70, and I can’t remember all this stuff.

JS: Trying to inspire your grandkids?

TM: Right. The true, true story is it’s a combination of some determination and some talent on my part. Some talent, a lot of determination, a lot of luck, and a lot of serendipity. And a lot of failure. I was fired—

JS: There’s a section about failure in the book.

TM: I was fired from the legal profession, basically. I wasn’t just fired from Fenwick and West—you read the first book, the story’s in there. I got fired in such a public way that there was almost no way I was going to get back into law. I would have to go back and be a public defender or something if I wanted to be a lawyer. Seriously.

JS: Which these days, a lot of people would be happy with, because lawyers can’t find jobs—

TM: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But I was fired from the legal profession. I went to work for my father, he has a restaurant company in Florida. I went to work for him. A long, intricate story, it basically ends with me getting fired by my father.

JS: Didn’t you say the employees were more politically savvy than you were?

TM: My dad’s employees knew how to manipulate the situation better than I did. There was an internal battle, I wanted to take the company in one way, they wanted to maintain their job. They understood corporate politics, I didn’t. I thought because my name was on the door I was right, I would win. I was 25 years old, I was very naive, very naive. If either of those things had succeeded, I’m not sure I would have ever taken this path, because without that jolt of failure, you won’t ever stop and think. You know, if you’re on a train, you keep going on the train. You don’t stop to think, am I going to the right place. But failure forces you, failure crystalizes it. Failure forces you to think about it, about where you are, what your mistakes were, and where you’re going. And after those two failures, for me, it was like—I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, it’s this book—I don’t know if any of you read it—when it came out—

JS: Yeah.

TM: Well you’re an English major, I’m sure you’ve read it. When it came out, it was like—Eggers was like the hipster God. Everyone was like, “Oh, he’s the greatest writer of history, he’s funnier than Salinger, blah blah blah,” and I read this and I’m like, I can do better than this, I said it in a very arrogant, “I’m fuckin’ better than this” way. Now that I’ve done it, it sounds different. But at the time, it was totally posturing.

JS: Your friends were probably somewhat skeptical?

TM: Actually, my friends believed in me more than I did at the time. But that’s a different story. So instead of doing anything I just talked shit about them [the authors], whatever. And then I read Fight Club. I’d seen the movie, but I saw it when I was like 21, and I thought it was about fighting, I didn’t understand—like the way these 19-year-old idiots think my book is about drinking and fucking.

JS: Well, it is on one level. But it depends on how you wanna—

TM: Yeah, exactly. I read Fight Club, and it was like a slap in the face. The basic message of Fight Club is, “If you’re the man you think you are, then go out and be it. Go out and prove it.” And it was like, okay. All right. I’m going to go do this. At the same time—my buddy, who’s PWJ in the book. The first five stories or something like that of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell started as e-mails to my buddies. “Sushi Pants,” I drove from that parking lot to my office at the time. I was living in Florida. I wrote that e-mail to my buddies. Almost verbatim. And PWJ was like, “Dude, this is what you should be doing. This is really good. This is the funniest shit I’ve ever read. You need to put this stuff up on a website, write a book, whatever.”

JS: Get it out there?

TM: He’s like, “Clearly, you don’t have the personality to work in law, to work in business, you are too much of an anti-authoritarian ass.”

JS: You seem like the sort of person who might start his own firm, though, and eventually roll with it. I don’t know if you’d insult clients too often.

TM: You know, if I was the type—I’m definitely the type, “I want my own kingdom.” But I was so reckless, so outa control, so obstinate, even at 23, 24, and 25—

JS: It seems to work really well with women.

TM: It does. Being the bad boy helps. I couldn’t exist in the normal business / legal system, because it’s so conformist and so anti-contrarian. And I’m such a contrarian. I was like literally pushed out of the system. And I ended up turning it around and making it work for me. But there’s no doubt that had that not happened, had I not failed so catastrophically and so completely, I’m not sure I would have ever had the half courage and half necessity. It’s like, if you break your leg in the middle of the forest and you crawl out, how much of that is courage and how much of that is survival? It’s kind of the same thing.

JS: And how much of that is luck being near the edge of the forest.

TM: Right, right. That was kind of the thing for me. It was half determination and half necessity. What the fuck else was I going to do? For me, it was either go follow your path and find your destiny, or accept the fact—change your behavior and become a monk. Become a cubicle monkey. And I went the other way.

JS: It’s interesting that you mention Fight Club and materialism, because there’s that line, I think it’s in Assholes Finish First, where you say you’re at a friend’s place with 19-year-old twins, and he’s worried about the wood floor or something like that.

TM: She was there, man!

JS: Can you say more about that party?

Bunny: Oh, they sucked. It was such a bizarre night, because those twins were just so weird. And so young.

TM: I mean, they were 19, but they acted like—

Bunny: The one in the car, when we were listening to, what was it—The Little Mermaid, “Under the Sea.” Oh my God.

TM: And you were makin’ fun of me.

Bunny: Yeah, and they showed up and they were just wasted. Totally wasted. They could barely walk.

TM: Cause they were so nervous.

Bunny: They were really cute girls, but it was so weird to have twins come to you in that manner.

JS: If it was normal, I guess it wouldn’t make a good story.

TM: Right, right, exactly.

JS: The Fight Club and materialism thing, there’s this line in [Assholes Finish First] where you say he had all this stuff, and yet he’s not having any fun, so what’s the point of having the stuff? [Direct quote: “All that money, all that stuff, and no freedom to just have fun.”]

TM: Yeah.

JS: I’m trying to academic-ize the question, but is that part of your philosophy? It sounds like Fight Club contributed to that.

TM: Look dude, what does it matter? I don’t want to regurgitate Chuck Palahniuk’s book, but what does it matter if you have a perfect apartment but you hate your life? He said it better than I ever could. He’s a much better writer, and that book is so brilliant. I mean, I wish I could write like that. I can’t. But I figured out somewhere in my mid-twenties that what mattered to me were experiences and relationships and ultimately what mattered was this: “Do I wake up every morning and love my life? And am I excited to do what I have to do?” Or: Am I waking up and hating what I have to do? And if I’m hating it, why the fuck am I doing it? Why don’t I change?

JS: I think the best lawyers and the best academics, even the ones working within the system, still love what they do. Otherwise they wouldn’t be at the top of it.

TM: You can love being a lawyer. I don’t have some scathing indictment of the entire legal system.

JS: That’s good, because we’ve got a bunch of lawyers sitting here.

TM: It’s not that you can’t like being a lawyer. But almost every job in law is predicated ultimately on exploitation or stealing. And even the way you do it, you do this awful, mind-numbing, grinding work. You’re cleaning up other people’s messes. And it fuckin’ sucks. That’s just not who I am. I’m a creator. I want to make something. I don’t want to clean up someone else’s shit. I would be a fuckin’ garbage man if that’s what I wanted, because at least I’d get exercise. It’s just like, yeah, what’s the point?

JS: If you start asking, “What’s the point?”, you can go very deep.

TM: When I moved to Austin, I got a bunch of royalty checks right in a row and I got a ton of money. I was trying to figure out what car—I’m not a huge material guy, but I wanted a nice car. I thought about getting a Maserati, a whatever. But I’ve got her [points to Murph]. And she’s a dog. And she doesn’t give a fuck if I buy a $200,000 car, she’s going to treat it the same as if I buy a $2,000 car. So if I buy a Maserati, I drop $150,000 on it, and it’s got some ridiculously expensive interior. If I’m yelling at her to keep her paws off, or I can’t bring her along, what the fuck good is that car? So I just bought a basic Range Rover and she fucks up the back, and it’s like, “I don’t care.” It’s a $60,000 car. It’s nice enough that I like driving it around, but it’s not so nice that I can’t use it. I can’t live in it. There’s no point in life if you can’t live it.

JS: Another interviewer said that you’re “one of those 21st-century media figures who has been interviewed so often it’s impossible to learn anything new.” To which I say—

TM: Depends on how good of an interviewer you are. I had a girl—I was hanging out with a girl a few nights ago, in San Francisco, and she asked me a question that I’d never been asked before. Stumped me. I was like, “Wow. I don’t ever get interviews like this.” No. I don’t give a fuck how many times someone’s been interviewed. You can always have a great interview if you—I tell interviewers this all the time. Don’t talk about what you want to talk about. If you want a great interview, talked about what the interviewee wants to talk about. And then you’ll get life out of them. You’ll get substance out of them. You’ll get unrehearsed answers out of them. And you might not get what your editor wants, but it’ll be a good interviewer.

JS: Nice. What do you want to talk about, besides, following your dreams?

TM: I mean, I don’t know. That’s part of your job, isn’t it, is to figure that out?

JS: That’s true, but sometimes the meta questions yield interesting answers too. The other part of my question was, is there anything new I should be asking about, or that others should be asking about?

TM: I’ll tell you, the question she asked me, was “What do you like best about yourself.” Seems like a simple question, right. But then when you think about it—it kinda threw me for a loop. I stuttered for a while, gave a bunch of start and stop answers. I eventually settled on—the thing I ultimately like about myself the most—about myself, not like, “I wrote this book.” I mean, that’s cool but—

JS: For writers, though, I think that often is the thing they like best about themselves—their work.

TM: Then they’re shallow, idiot pieces of shit. If you like the experiences that led to the book, or you like what the book creates, that’s one thing, but if you like just the object, that seems weird. The thing I ultimately rested on is, what I like best about myself is the fact that everything I’ve been through in my life, good, bad, almost every mistake you can make I’ve made—I’ve done so much stupid shit. All this stuff.

JS: Which become your books.

TM: Right. I turn it around. Or I turn it into something good. One of my defining characteristics, I guess, is my refusal to live someone else’s life. To let someone else put their boot on my neck. And everything I’ve ever done in my life, conscious or unconscious, has always been with this underlying desire to create my own path. And forge my own place in the world. And sometimes it’s been bad. Sometimes that’s led to me being arrogant, having too much hubris. I’ve had to climb a much harder path than I might’ve had to if I wasn’t such an arrogant know-it-all asshole when I was in my early twenties. But at the end of the day, because I refused to get off that path and refused to live someone else’s reality, I was able to create something out of nothing. Something good and valuable. Something I value, something other people value.

JS: Are you talking about life experience? Or are you talking about the writing.

TM: Both. I’ve taken the life experiences and made them into something. I’ve taken the failures and struggles and the successes, and I’ve made them into something tangible. Something valuable. I’ve created value for other people.

JS: Otherwise they wouldn’t buy the book, if it wasn’t valuable to them. So why do you think people are afraid of having fun, which seems like an underlying theme?

TM: I think some people are. I think the people who are, are so worried about what other people think of them, are so worried about—they have so much guilt over whatever sort of shit their parents have dumped on them, or other people, or friends, that they are afraid. They are afraid to be who they are, because they think that’s not okay. I’ve had a lot of issues in my life, that’s never been one of mine. I’ve always been willing to say, “Fuck you guys, I’m going to do what I want to do.” And I think that’s ultimately why people connect emotionally to my stuff. Because I’m honest and because I’m not afraid. And that other stuff, the funny, the drinking, whatever, that’s fun and cool and that’s there. But the people who emotionally connect—I mean, some people read it and laugh and that’s it—but the people who emotionally connect to it, that’s I think what they’re connected to.

JS: Maybe regarding the people who’ve emotionally connected to your work, what do you think is the most interesting thing a male fan has ever done in response to your work?

TM: Oh dude. It just happened in Denver. I gotta show you the picture, because this is not believable shit.

JS: It must have been something more than tattoos, then—

TM: Oh no. It’s a tattoo. This guy comes to the line in Denver. And he’s like totally tatted out, flaming homosexual. A dude you would never think would be a fan of my stuff. Huge fan. You know, super nice guy, he’s like, I want you to sign my chest. I’m like, “Signing a dude’s skin is a little weird.” He’s like, no, no, this is a little different. So he takes his shirt off, and he has a tattoo of a bra. A brassiere. A lacy fucking bra tattooed on him. It was fucking crazy. Not a henna tattoo—a fuckin’ tattoo. I was speechless. I was shocked. I didn’t know what the fuck to say, or how to think about this. I was so shocked.

JS: How often do you find yourself speechless? I’m guess not very frequently.

TM: Not very frequently, dude. It happens, but not often. I mean, I was able to render fuckin’ Dr. Drew speechless. So my bar is pretty fuckin’ high. But this dude bolted over it. He skipped over it. I’d never signed a dude’s skin. That’s just weird. But this guy, that was just so out there that I was like, “You got to, right.” So I signed TM. He loves it, gets a picture. He sends me a picture three days later—he went to a tattoo shop that night, got the tattoo guy to fill in where I signed. A permanent tattoo. He now has my signature tattooed—it’s on his back, thank God, it’s not on his dick or ass or something weird. That fuckin’ rendered me pretty, I was like, wow dude.

JS: What’s the most interesting or unusual thing a female fan has ever done?

TM: In Portland, there was a guy who dressed as Jesus. There’s this. A note that a girl passed me last night. I get phone numbers and shit from girls all the time, but she drew me a little cartoon. [Shows a pictured depicting fornicating stick figures.]

JS: Did it work?

TM: No. I hooked up with a different girl. It’s got me saying “Yay!” And we’re all cheering. And my penis is about 18 times larger than it is real life.

[Someone else suggests a woman who brought a condom bouquet of flowers. Or a bag with “whore trinkets” in it.]

JS: If you used to think you were legitimately a hyper-genius, as you said, what do you think now?

TM: Being a genius is overrated. However smart I am or am not, the amount of shit that I don’t know is vastly, infinitely larger than the amount of shit I do know.

JS: Which is true of everyone, because there’s more knowledge than there is time to learn.

TM: Exactly. So, even if I’m the smartest motherfucker on earth, I still don’t know shit.

JS: How old were you when you realized that, or came to that conclusion?

TM: That I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was? It was college. There was a lot that sucked about the University of Chicago, one of the good things was, there’s a lot of smart motherfuckers there. You go in there, and I thought I was the smartest person on earth when I walked in there. And then I was like, maybe I’m not. I can compete, but I’m not an all star there.

JS: I see the same kind of things in my students, since I’m teaching English Comp at the University of Arizona.

TM: Yeah, you get a kid like I was—the smartest kid in my high school. They’re like, great.

JS: The University of Chicago has a reputation for being very good at beating that out of you.

TM: It does. No doubt. I think, my first class or second class was David Bevington teaching The History of the Peloponnesian War. Bevington’s like the world’s premier Shakespeare scholar. And he was teaching a book that wasn’t even in his specialty, but he knows Thucydides really well. The first fuckin’ day, I walked out of that class and my brain fuckin’ hurt. This dude, he was so nuanced and so brilliantly subtle, it was like, “Fuck this guy is smart. Fuck!” I could keep up, but I had to run at a dead sprint to keep up with him going backwards. So I’m like, “All right, maybe I’m not as smart as I think.”

JS: How often do you think the stuff you’ve learned in school has been useful in, say, picking up girls at bars and what not?

TM: Being smart never hurts, at least for me. I’m not the type that being smart’s ever gotten in my way. A lot of people over-think stuff, whatever. That’s never been my issue. I’ve always been able to sort of cut the Gordian knot, to go in when it’s time to go in. Being smart, though, never hurts.

JS: You also said somewhere that you have a 100% discount rate, which I find somewhat hard to believe. If you do—

TM: You understand what that means?

JS: Yeah, yeah. I think anyone who would proclaim that doesn’t have one by default.

TM: Of course, of course.

JS: You ever read Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox?

TM: No, I know the book, but I’ve never read it.

JS: It might be useful for you because it sounds like you’re a very present-oriented person—

TM: Definitely my point.

JS: —which might be an artifact of your writing.

TM: It’s also an artifact of my emotionally stressful childhood. Anytime you go through stress like that, you discount the future. Because it’s uncertain.

JS: Do you have any stories involving the University of Arizona or ASU that you haven’t told before, or that you’d like to share?

TM: SlingBlade used to live in Tucson—

JS: My apologies.

TM: Yeah, right. He works for the government. And his first posting was in Tucson, so I’ve been there a couple times, but not really. Who hangs out in Arizona?

JS: People who go to school in Arizona!

TM: Right, and I’m not at school in Arizona.

JS: You mentioned in Assholes Finish First, “I don’t have any legitimate excuse—”which is a funny phrase, because maybe you had an illegitimate excuse”—for what I did. I was stupid in my twenties, so what do you want from me?” Stories, evidently. But how about now? How do you think your 45-year-old self is going to look back on what you’re doing now?

TM: What I did at 25, or—

JS: What you’re doing now.

TM: Right now, dude, I think I’m kinda in a transitionary phase. When I was 25, five, six nights a week, I would’ve gone through a brick wall at the smell of pussy, I was an unguided missile of debauchery, dude. Now I’m much more measured. Also—it’s so easy for me now. It’s like, I’ve played this game, I’ve won it so well, it’s not even—it’s not fun anymore.

JS: Transcended the game?

TM: You played with GI Joes when you were 10, you play with yourself when you’re 20. GI Joes aren’t interesting anymore.

JS: Interesting comparing girls to GI Joes.

TM: I’m not comparing girls to GI Joes, I’m saying stages of life. This time, I’m on to other things. I’m still like one foot—I still like girls a lot, I still like hooking up, I still like drinking up, I like hanging out with my friends. I’m still coming out of one stage and coming into another, and I’m not fully out of one or fully into the other.

JS: I almost got to this earlier, but I’ll ask it to you explicitly because I ask it to every writer I interview: is there anything you wish interviewers would ask you that they don’t?

TM: The big thing with my interviewers, a lot of them, I think they take the wrong narrative from me. You get stupid questions, like “How long can you keep this up?” Do you ask that shit to Kid Rock? That motherfucker’s like 45, he’s drunk backstage at the CMTs last night, the afterparty started in eighth grade. Why doesn’t anyone ask him that?

JS: They probably do.

TM: They don’t.

JS: Really?

TM: They don’t. Because the narrative about rock stars is that they can do it. They can do all this stuff, it’s okay for them. But for some reason it’s not okay for me. I don’t know. It’s almost like—your interview is actually pretty good, if it sucked, I’d probably tell you, trust me.

JS: Thanks, I think.

TM: Most interviewers don’t get that there’s other stuff going on. And so they ask stupid questions like, “What do you think about inventing Fratire?” I don’t know, I didn’t even fuckin’ name it, go ask a literary critic. I get stupid questions like that, that don’t have anything to do with the substance. But this is actually not that type of interview, you covered most shit that I’d like to cover.

JS: Anything else you’d like to add or say?

TM: I think you got it man.

 


 

What Tucker said often resonated with what others said, but in very different contexts. For example, his comment about undergrad echoes Paul Graham’s third option mentioned in “A Student’s Guide to Startups:” “Till recently graduating seniors had two choices: get a job or go to grad school. I think there will increasingly be a third option: to start your own startup.” He’s also telling undergrads (and people in general) that there are more options than they imagine (“You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss” is also on point).

Tucker is discussing work and one’s life, but one can see the same idea underlying his stories about sex: your own sex life doesn’t have to do what your parents, teachers, or friends think it should be. If you’re strong enough, you can go your own way. And his own way is funnier than most people’s.

Tucker also said regarding Fight Club, “I’d seen the movie, but I saw it when I was like 21, and I thought it was about fighting, I didn’t understand—like the way these 19-year-old idiots think my book is about drinking and fucking.” I teach English composition. Each semester is divided into three major units: the first is called “Questioning Authority and Assumptions,” the second is on novels, and the third is called “Rereading Romance.” The first is nominally about what the title implies, but it’s really about understanding how school and cultural systems are set up to create beliefs. We read a few Paul Graham essays, a few short stories, and some poems. The third is nominally about romance and love stories, but it’s really about how people respond to incentives, structures, and social situations. Most students don’t pick those things up until, on the last day of the third unit, I give a little speech about what they’re really about versus what they’re supposedly about. I don’t think very many of my students get the deeper point, which is okay because they’re 18 and 19. Maybe they eventually will.

In addition, the Fight Club section—along with the comments about the friend with the nice stuff—reminds me of this New York Times article on “minimalism,” or the practice of not caring about having a lot of shit.

This advice for interviewers is good: “Don’t talk about what you want to talk about. If you want a great interview, talked about what the interviewee wants to talk about,” but harder to implement in practice than it sounds. A lot of interviewees don’t know what they want to talk about, or they want to give the standard party line, and it’s a challenge to find what they want to talk about beyond that. Dating is often the same way: getting substance out of someone is hard immediately after you meet them. Hard, but doable. Ditto for interviews, which is what Tucker says: “That’s part of your job, isn’t it, is to figure that out?”

One other note from me: this was an unusual experience because I mostly interview writers who aren’t sufficiently famous that if you walked into a room and asked 20 people who they are, most wouldn’t know. But Tucker was the opposite, and I’ve never been in an environment that was more like interviewing a celebrity: dozens of people milling around; long lines; nervous expectation; and an obvious interview script that I probably didn’t really knock him off.

An interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and Codex, Part I

Lev Grossman’s book tour is just about finished, and I caught up with him at Changing Hands in Phoenix on June 10 to talk about The Magicians. In the novel, Quentin Coldwater is a bright and unhappy high school student searching for meaning, happiness, and a place in the world—which he thinks he’ll find when he receives an invitation to Brakebills, a college for magic. Unlike Hogwarts, however, classes are a grind, students are filled with angst, and sexual politics are everywhere.

As I wrote about the novel:

The Magicians is a surprise and delight: its language is not overly showy and yet often contains an unexpected surprise, especially at the ends of sentences, as this early description shows: “Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first.” Until the last clause, one could be reading any novel, fantasy or otherwise, but saying that a blow from heaven would hit the tall first gives us Quentin’s personality in a single line, and yet its ideas are spun coherently across the entire novel.

The following is an edited transcript, and any links were added by me after the interview:

Jake Seliger: I first read about The Magicians on John Scalzi’s blog, “Whatever.” I don’t know if you’ve met him or not, but he wrote about it and I thought “That’s exactly the book I want to read.”

Lev Grossman: He runs that features “The Big Idea.” I actually wrote that. I ran into him at the World Con—that is the convention—and we got to chatting. He’s a friendly fellow. He let me post something on the blog.

JS: I’m really glad you did. Not every book is one I’ve really loved. He posted about a book called Mistwood, which I thought was okay, but flat in a way. The premise is really interesting—instead of talking from the premise of a human who gains special powers and becomes more than she is, it discusses a summoned creature or magical being who’s becoming more human and doesn’t want to become human.

LG: That sounds like a great idea.

JS: Yeah. The execution is one I didn’t love. It was a first novel. It was a lot of fun. As far as The Magicians goes, I was struck that there’s this repeated expectation or hope of finding another world, that of course gets fulfilled. Even really early on, on page 8, Quentin says, when his interviewer’s “back was turned Quentin would stumble on a mysterious cabinet or an enchanted dumbwaiter or whatever, through which he would gaze with wild surmise on the clean breast of another world.” So he’s looking for these enchantments, and it seems like by the end of the novel that he finds or we find that we either make our enchantments or don’t make our enchantments. Do you agree? Or is my reading off?

LG: No, I think that’s fair enough. I think that for a very long time—an embarrassingly long time—instead of solving problems, I tended to buffer them. Something would come up and I would think, ‘Well, that sucks,’ but I’ll stick it in the buffer, and when I get to Narnia, I’ll basically clear out the whole buffer. And not literally Narnia, but I would decide that if a certain that was coming up—if I got into college, for example—it would solve everything and I would never have any problems again. So I would ever really solve problems: I would put them off and lay them away for a time when they would get solved by the course of events.

JS: That’s funny because it makes it sound like a very passive kind of action. “The course of events” would solve them rather than “I would solve them.”

LG: Oh, it is very passive. I was a very passive person for a very long time. I didn’t really understand how to engage with reality. I didn’t really grapple with it on a basic level. I just let it roll over me. As a result, I made a huge number of mistakes that I wish I hadn’t made. Events made them for me.

JS: I guess that got transposed to the novel.

LG: Yeah, well, writing The Magicians was in a way working through my acceptance of the fact that I never would get to Narnia. Quentin essentially does, and what happens to Quentin is that his problems come with him.

JS: Many of them.

LG: Yeah. And it turns out that action is required of him, in fact, to solve them. Or accept the fact that they’re insolvable.

JS: It seems that’s where a lot of the rhetoric about reality comes from. And not only the reality parts of it, but the two worlds or multiple worlds idea. One of the things I found really intriguing when I got to the end of the novel is when Emily Greenstreet [whose brother dies by becoming a Niffin and who has an affair with Professor Mayakovsky, leading him to be banished to Antarctica] reappears. There’s this wonderful line, and we learn that “In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.” It’s an intriguing sentence because the sexual language doesn’t seem like a mistake. Part of the issue is that incorporating sexuality in life is important and becomes a proximate cause because that’s what actually gets them to Fillory. Alice goes and sleeps with Penny [as revenge for Quentin sleeping with Janet].

LG: Obviously in this book I’m confronting a powerful literary forebear, namely C.S. Lewis. You only do that if you truly truly love the forebear in question. But, one of the things I find maddening about his books is this sense that magic and wonder and ultimately meaning are not compatible with sexual maturity. He’s so in love with childhood that he imagines that there is no such thing as magic once you get older, or if there is, then it’s a debased, ignorant, evil kind of magic, like the magician in The Magician’s Nephew. And I wanted to explore the idea—as Philip Pullman did before me—that coming of age, becoming a whole adult sexual being, entails not a loss of magic but a different kind of magic. A richer kind of magic.

JS: And one that doesn’t always go particularly well, either in the real world or in the novel itself. It seems to me that Quentin in Alice become almost victims of their own sexual politics, in a sort of game theory way. When Quentin sleeps with Janet, which he knows he shouldn’t’ve done but he does anyway, and then they get in this tit-for-tat—

LG: Right. No pun intended. Yeah, it’s true. Things turn out to be very much less than zero sum. It involves taking on a certain kind of risk that you do not have in childhood and accepting that risk.

JS: And the sense of risk is very real in the novel because people die and there are rules in it. The risk feels real that often times in fantasy novels it doesn’t because you know that good is somehow going to triumph in the end even if it’s not complete.

LG: The moment where I attempted in an almost self-conscious way to bring that into the book is when the beast appears in the classroom.

JS: Right. That’s exactly what I was referring to because it’s unexpected, and the teachers don’t know what’s going on. And then there’s speech—I’m pretty sure it’s Dean Fogg who gives it—where he basically says, “There are things out there we don’t know, we don’t understand.”

LG: I want it to feel less safe than Hogwarts. And that was one of the ways I tried to announce that. Here’s a being which is not even evil, necessarily, in a way that is comprehensible to us. It’s almost arbitrary.

JS: It’s chaotic or indifferent.

LG: Which is almost more terrifying, in a kind of mustachio-twiddling villain. And I very much wanted there not to be a Gandalf-like figure, who is able to explain what happened and assume the risk for the kids. Fogg is just about as lost as they are.

JS: To me what’s interesting is in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf almost never has complete explanations. When he leads [The Fellowship] into the Mines of Moria, he doesn’t know what’s down there. That’s part of what reminded me of the beast and the Mines of Moria. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf doesn’t know everything. And he constantly says that—”I don’t necessarily know what’s going on,” and there’re conjectures and so forth, and that’s a lot of what the Council of Elrond is and some other places in the novel, where they’re always talking about what they don’t know and recognizing their own limitations.

LG: Yeah, that’s very true. I have a bad habit of underestimating Tolkien. He’s always better than I think he is—the Mines of Moria being a case in point.

JS: It’s somewhat dangerous talking to me about it because The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite novels and I actually reread it about a month and a half ago, and this time around one thing that struck me is how funny it is, because they’re all these little jokes in there, and the relationship between Sam and Gollum is funny, and Pippin is ceaselessly getting in the way, and the relationship between Legolas and Gimli is very funny as well. Once they become friends, everyone is shocked at it: Galadriel goes, “This is a strange friendship!” People are constantly going, “An elf and a dwarf? This doesn’t make any sense!” and they just do their thing.

LG: It’s one of my major weaknesses as a fantasist. I never really came to—there’s almost no Tolkien in The Magicians

JS: There is that funny thing where Alice and Quentin are trying to get into the Physical Kids’ cottage—

LG: Right, right.

JS: —”speak, friend and enter.”

LG: It’s there. But I don’t really wrestle with Tolkien. I don’t understand him very well.

JS: How so?

LG: He’s just not easy pickings like Lewis is. Lewis wrote the Narnia novels—all of them—in the span of slightly over two years. And he’s an incredibly sloppy world builder, because Lewis’ threads are lying around all over the place.

JS: And you have Plover do some of the same things, especially when you describe the fifth novel. In The Magicians, Quentin describes the fifth Fillory novel as being unsatisfying because it just wanders off into nothing.

LG: Yeah. Plover wrote the second novel partly to plug the plot holes in the first one. Which was a vague allusion to The Magicians Nephew trying to explain what happens in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch came from, which only ends up introducing a whole bunch of other plot holes. And just sort of, it’s turtles all the way down.

JS: “It’s turtles all the way down.” It’s funny you say that because it seems like Quentin is always look for some version of reality or happiness or whatever, but he doesn’t find it because—this is going to sound kind of trite—but he doesn’t find it because it’s either within you, or it’s not, and it’s not going to be imposed externally.

LG: Yeah, and he’s looking for some sort of safe, closed system, where risk is eliminated.

JS: If you don’t have religion, it seems like you don’t have that anywhere.

LG: Yeah. Well, I’m not very qualified to talk about religion. But certainly, I think what he ultimately has to do is become tolerant of risk and loss and imperfection. He has a tendency to say, “Oh shit, well that went wrong. This world sucks. I’m going to find another world, where it’s better.” But of course, he’ll just run forever—if that’s what he wants.

JS: Yeah, and it’s a little bit—the last world we see in The Magicians is when he’s at this firm he’s not particularly happy at, just making money. And he’s sitting there just before he’s rescued once again. He says, “With the coming of the bitter late fall weather the air-conditioning had gone silent and the heaters had sprung to life, and huge nebulae of steam curled off them in abstract whorls: hypnotic, silent, slowly turning shapes that never stopped and never repeated themselves. Smoke signals sent by no one, to no one, signifying nothing.” It seems like that becomes a metaphor for what Quentin is going through. Do you read a lot of Melville? Or a lot about Melville?

LG: I’ve read Moby-Dick.

JS: In PierrePierre‘s a terrible novel, don’t read it—but there’s a funny section where the narrator announces, “Silence is the only Voice of our God.” James Wood describes Parker’s biography and how “[…] it is not until very late in his story that [Parker] considers Melville’s difficult relationship to his inherited faith, a relationship which is the absent, sunless center of all his greatest fiction, poetry, and letters.” The idea of that “absent center” in Melville is about God, and it seems like Quentin’s case is more about himself. I had a question in there somewhere, I just lost it along the way.

LG: I don’t disagree with what you’re saying—

JS: I think it’s that line, “Smoke signals sent by no one, to no one, signifying nothing.” He doesn’t pick up on that thread of his observation.

LG: He’s attempting to grapple with a world charged with mean and found it intolerably painful. He sought out a world from which meaning has been almost completely expunged—and therefore risk of any kind.

JS: Can you say more about the meaning being expunged?

LG: Well, when you talk about meaning you automatically head into a thicket of solecisms.

JS: That’s true, and maybe that’s part of reason why it’s interesting to talk about it, if one can.

LG: Yeah, but what I mean to say is that there are no stakes in that world. Nothing means anything to him.

JS: In Brakebills, or the corporate world?

LG: In the corporate world. He’s shuffling fungible papers and there’s just nothing at stake.

JS: So how do we if we are modern office workers and we don’t happen to have magic within us, find some things to be at stake.

LG: Yeah.

JS: You’re looking at me with an expression that says, “I have no fucking idea, why are you asking me this?”

LG: There should be an answer. And of course, the office he’s working in is my office, in the Time-Life Building, and the heaters are across the street—that’s the view from my window. Actually, I think they might not be any more, because I moved offices.

JS: To me it sounds hopelessly glamorous, living in New York and working in a very large office building, because New York itself seems glamorous. Maybe that’s ridiculous, and it’s like me looking at New York is like Quentin looking at Fillory.

LG: I don’t know. Well, I guess that’s fair. It has glamorous bits. It has good restaurants.

JS: You distinctly not—

LG: Well, you know, I’ve been there for a while. It’s very expensive, living in New York.

JS: That’s why I didn’t apply to grad schools there.

LG: And it’s causing me—one has to make great sacrifices to maintain a lifestyle there. Recently I’ve become very aware of that.

JS: Have you ever heard of a woman named Penelope Trunk, who writes a blog called Brazen Careerist?

LG: No.

JS: She’s written pretty extensively about her time in New York and why she decided to move from there, which are essentially the reasons you’re describing: the tremendous, tremendous expense of living there makes it impractical.

LG: I have a daughter from my first marriage. If my daughter didn’t live in Brooklyn, I’d probably leave.

JS: But Quentin is busy trying to run away from Brooklyn, at the beginning, and thinks that Brooklyn is tremendously boring and there’s no meaning in Brooklyn. Which is funny, because New York has this romantic ideal in the American imagination of being the center of things and moving to the big city. Quentin is already there and he’s not happy and he wants to move somewhere magical. And then he moves to somewhere magical and he finds out that it’s not as glamorous as he thought either.

LG: Yeah, it’s kind of like moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan. If you live in Brooklyn, everything’s happening in Manhattan.

JS: And when you live in Manhattan, I wonder where everything’s happening. At a cooler party than where you’re at?

LG: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s happening in L.A. I don’t know. It’s always somewhere else though.

JS: Right. And the chase of it doesn’t seem to work out.

LG: It’s always happening at the secret after party you weren’t invited to. That’s where the action is.

JS: Yeah. I have to ask a question: have you ever read a book called Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert?

LG: I started it, but I didn’t finish it.

JS: Really? I’m surprised, because it feels like Quentin is always searching for happiness, and he has this happiness rhetoric going on. And he’s thinking a lot about his own happiness. I mean, there’s one bit pretty early when it says, “He was experimenting cautiously with the idea of being happy, dipping an uncertain toe into those intoxicatingly carbonated waters. It wasn’t something he’d had much practice at.” As though you get better at being happy like you get better at baseball. “It was just too fucking funny. He was going to learn magic! He was either the greatest genius of all time or the biggest idiot. But at least he was actually curious about what was going to happen to him next.” It seems like there are a couple of things going on in the book there: one, this idea of happiness, and two, what’s going to happen next to him, as opposed to what is he going to make happen.

LG: Yeah, that’s true. I guess there’s a passiveness built into that. Honestly, that comes out of—if you read my blog enough, you’ll find me crapping on about depression. While I was writing this book, I was going through therapy for the first time, and I was kind of understanding a little bit about how challenging it is to be happy. It requires an effort to organize your psyche in such a way that happiness is possible. Being depressed is very, very easy. It’s a zero-energy state.

JS: It seems like Quentin doesn’t learn how to organize his psyche in that way. Although going to Fillory or having Alice die might make it considerably harder.

LG: Yeah, well, I think he needs to learn how to mourn. I want to say in the Freudian sense, although now I don’t remember exactly what happens in Mourning and Melancholia, but he needs to learn how to process loss and process grief, rather than having it just stop him cold. I think that’s a lesson that he learns at the end.

JS: It’s funny, because if he does learn that lesson at the end, I didn’t necessarily read it that way because to me it seemed like he was still somewhat passive because he’s gone back to this office, and until Julia shows up and they break his window down and say, “Quentin, you need to come with us—”

LG: Well, he could’ve stayed. My mother thinks that he’s having a hallucination and he’s committing suicide.

JS: Really?

LG: She said it as if it was the most natural thing in the world—”That’s what you meant, right? He’s killing himself, and they’re not really real.” I said, “No.”

JS: I definitely didn’t read that into it, if that’s the question.

LG: I found that disturbing, coming from my mother.

JS: Right. Well, it must be strange hearing all the various interpretations of your books, some of which you’ve now heard from me and some of which you’ve heard from others too. And if we are talking books, you mentioned you reacting to C.S. Lewis in a kind of Harold Bloomian way. Have you read The Anxiety of Influence?

LG: I have, or rather I’ve read about the first 50 pages, which is all that I found comprehensible. Once—

JS: Once the jargon starts, you check out?

LG: Once the Greek starts, I lost it. But I got a lot out of those pages, and I found them to be very true, and very smart.

JS: How so?

LG: This idea of mapping the Oedipal struggle onto literary forebears, I simply find it to be true. And I’m aware that I probably work that way in a more self-conscious way than a lot of writers. And I’m also conscious that as Bloom points out, when one works that way, one is rarely grappling with the literary forebear him- or herself, but rather a caricature of that person one creates oneself for the purpose of then knocking it down.

JS: Like a literary straw man.

LG: Yeah, sure. Just so you have something to push against.

JS: It seems like people have always been pushing against Shakespeare. And you have a line from The Tempest as your epigraph, which I didn’t actually look up—

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book

What made you choose that? Or did it just sound cool?

LG: Number one, it sounded cool.

JS: That’s a good reason.

LG: It’s about renunciation. That’s the moment where Prospero decides, “I’ve passed the point of life where magic will be of use to me, and now I will return to terrestrial life,” you know, much as the children return from Narnia. And it’s a bit of a fake out, I guess, because it was never my intention to have Quentin give up magic for good. But I wanted him to confront that possibility very seriously.

JS: It’s interesting that you say that, because in giving up magic Quentin then feels as superior as he did when he originally took up magic. At the very end, he says, “To be honest, Quentin felt superior to anybody who still messed around with magic. They could delude themselves if they liked, those self-indulgent magical mandarins, but he’d outgrown that stuff.” Quentin is very touchy about status in the novel—

LG: Very, yeah.

JS: —just like people are in life. People are constantly jockeying for position: school, elsewhere, magically, sexually, and other hierarchies in the novel. Were you consciously shooting for this kind of status stuff and these kinds of status games, or were you just trying to represent the hyper-competitive? This is a somewhat dangerous question because I’m thinking forward ultimately towards a dissertation that might focus on signaling and status in novels—

LG: Really. That’s very interesting to me.

JS: How so?

LG: I’m very interested in that topic. Of course Quentin is a hyper-competitive individual. He’s not like a baseline human in that respect. He I think has a very tenuous grasp on his own self-esteem, and he’s always looking for ways in which he can rate himself above people around him.

JS: I wonder if having sex with Janet is part of that.

LG: Oh sure, yeah, God. I feel like, he must be very aware that—I think at that point, there’s a moment where Alice says, “You know Josh has slept with Janet.” I have a feeling that that fact went into his brain and kicked around for a while and he was like, “Are you kidding? Josh hit that? I have to be above Josh in some respect, and to do that, I want to sleep with Janet.”

JS: Of course, when they’re at Brakebills South, I believe Janet is involved in some of the orgies. But the sex at Brakebills South doesn’t seem to count, I guess.

LG: Yeah, but I think Quentin would’ve been upset if Alice were involved in that. But yeah, on some level—the idea that it doesn’t really count—I went back and forth as to whether that was realistic, or whether it was a bit—I don’t know.

JS: Which part was realistic?

LG: The idea that they would engage in these orgies. You know, I guess I went on in college, but I never got invited to those parties.

JS: Another one of those regrets?

LG: Yeah. The status thing. Status—this is getting way, way overly competitive—but realizing how obsessed I was with status was a big thing in therapy, where I had to deal with that.

JS: Well, the status thing is interesting to me because as far as I know, no one has tried to write any kind of study as to how it really functions in novels, but now that I’m more attuned to it, it seems to be going on all the time: between characters, and with characters up towards the reader. Quentin seems to be aware of this but seems to always view himself as low status. I have this comment about him feeling superior and looking down on those with magic, which feels to me very much like overcompensating.

LG: Yeah, I think he always feels both exalted and degraded, and he’s trying to hang onto the exalted part. He always suspects he’s being humiliated in some way. My wife and I actually play a game after we’ve gone out at a party or whatever, and we’ll try to identify as many status hierarchies that were in play in a given interaction as you can. Because there’s always multiple ones in play.

JS: Right. Which must be hard, because you have probably people jockeying for financial position, and artistic position, and sexual position, and probably others that one isn’t even aware of.

LG: Well, the bizarre thing is how completely differently men and women, or at least my wife and I, analyze these situations. I’ll say, “Oh, you know, this guy is a lot taller than that guy, and they must care a lot about that.” And Sophie says, “That’s baffling, that makes no sense.” And she’ll point out, “Oh, this person is pregnant and that person is pregnant and this person is engaged and that person is engaged,” and I’m sort of, “Well, so what?” But she would argue that for women that is a status marker.

JS: What is? Being pregnant or engaged?

LG: Yeah.

JS: That’s interesting. Did you ever read Neil Strauss’ book, The Game?

LG: I have to admit, I picked it up out of morbid curiosity. I didn’t read it through, but I leafed through it.

JS: So did I. In that, he talks about the endless status and peacocking things that go on. And there’s a part of me that wants to slip Quentin a copy of it and say, “Quentin, it’s okay.”

LG: Yeah.

JS: But he’s neurotic about some of the sexual aspects and the magical aspects, and they intertwine for him.

LG: Oh, yeah sure. Well, everybody—the most obvious status hierarchy that’s in play is who’s the better magician.

JS: The hierarchy thing gets interwoven with the power, and to go back to the Emily Greenstreet thing, when her and Quentin meet at the end, she goes, “They’re just kids!” And then there’s a funny little line, “Just thinking about that place now gives me the howling fantods.” I have no idea what a fantod is.

LG: That’s a David Foster Wallace expression. I think it’s taken from him.

JS: Yeah, well I’ve never actually loved his work, which might explain why I don’t know what a howling fantod is.

LG: I read it in David Foster Wallace, and only now does it occur to me that he probably made it up and it’s not a generally used idiom.

JS: Well, that’s words always get started. You use howling fantod and now maybe I’ll start using it on my blog or elsewhere, and now suddenly people know what a fantod is. [EDIT: my spellcheck didn’t flag the word “Fantod,” and the Oxford American Dictionary that comes with OS X 10.6 defines it as “a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness : the mumbo-jumbo gave me the fantods. ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: of unknown origin.”]

LG: In retrospect I’m surprised the copy-editor didn’t flag it.

JS: Maybe she just thought it was a magical term. Anyway, it’s funny because she says, “They’re just kids with all that power.” It seems like the power there—all kids and all people have power in their own way, whether it’s sexual or whether it’s working on something. Kids have power over their bodies and their world: to be or to kill or to be killed, to work or not to work. And so, I don’t know, her complaint there about magic in particular seems like it starts to have a broader resonance. How do kids grow up and deal with whatever it is that they’re doing?

LG: Yeah, I suppose that’s true. To be honest, when I wrote that dialog, the only thing in my head was, “She’s completely right.” I mean, it’s insane the way that institution is run, and it’s amazing that the whole thing hasn’t erupted before now.

JS: What I started to expect when they got to Brakebills, is that probably if you gave a bunch of male teenagers unusual power, some of them would presumably try to rape or sexually harass some of the girls there. So I kept waiting for the administration not to know what to do about that. Like some combination of Anita Shreve’s Testimony and something else. But you never went that route.

LG: No, I know. And it’s entirely plausible I think to do so. Yeah. I didn’t go down that road.

JS: But the idea of teenagers having power, people in general having power, even if they don’t realize it—even without magic, teenagers have a certain amount of power, and part of what growing up seems to me to entail is learning whatever power you have and how you’re going to realize it.

LG: Yeah, well I think that’s very true.

JS: And that actually goes back to The Lord of the Rings, because in The Two Towers when Gandalf comes back, he says something like that to Gimli and Legolas and Aragorn: he says, “You guys have power of your own too, whether you realize it or not.” It’s this process of realization: it seems like Quentin sort of realizes he has power but doesn’t really still understand it or can’t grapple with it.

LG: Yeah, well, I think he’s very afraid to sort of embrace it. To accept it–I think it’s very difficult for him to accept that he is in fact a powerful being, a being who’s capable of action and very concerted action.

JS: Yeah. And it seems like he’s using magic to try and find reality. Really early in the novel, he says, “James opened the door. The cold air was a pleasant shock. It felt real. That was what Quentin needed: more reality. Less of this, whatever this was.” That word real just recurs over and over again in the novel. But I read that and wanted to say, “It seems to me that reality is wherever you are and whatever you make of it.”

LG: Yeah, I suppose. But that is a lesson that Quentin has yet to learn. He’d rather somebody else make it.

JS: Right, which is hard. But it’s like he’s on a search for reality as much as he’s on a search for magic.

LG: Yeah. I think that’s fair to say.

JS: Were you consciously thinking about that when you were writing Quentin? Or just saying, I’m trying to represent someone growing up and dealing with these situations?

LG: I’m talking to the characters and trying to emulate their behavior as accurately as he can. And then you go back and read and think about whatever that means.

JS: I think Steven King said something like that in On Writing, which is that he doesn’t consciously think about symbols, or metaphors, or that kind of thing when he’s in his first draft—he’s just trying to tell the story. Then he goes back through and says, “What might I have meant by this stuff?”

LG: I’ve heard that book is very good. I’ve never read it.

JS: Yeah, it is, it’s pretty interesting. Mostly it moves pretty quickly. Which I think is very nice. I certainly liked it. And that little comment obviously stuck in my mind enough to come out here, when he talks about symbols and how things work. Another thing that I noticed in The Magicians is that there were a lot of mentions of shit. Probably more than in any other fantasy novel I’ve read. Quentin smells “the faint, bitter odor of shit” when the interviewer dies. And you keep finding shit in the novel.

LG: It seemed important that there were strong whiffs of shit and sex in the first chapter, anyway.

JS: Right: Quentin also thinks that he’s not going to sleep with Julia, and that makes him unhappy.

LG: And he’s sort of, all hot for that paramedic lady.

JS: Who turns out to be Jane, right?

LG: Right. It goes back to this C.S. Lewis thing. I wanted to explore the idea that power begins with sex rather than ends with it.

JS: Probably because so many of us acquire power in order to deploy it to gain sex in one way or another. Or to gain the financial means we need to either acquire sex or attention.

LG: Yeah. Whereas in Narnia, of course, as soon as Susan puts on lipstick and nylons, that’s the end of Narnia for her.

JS: Well, in Harry Potter too, because it seems like the motives are all to defeat Voldemort rather than to be the star. It seems like Harry Potter is not being the star of the Quidditch team so he can get laid, but, at least based on the people I went to high school with, I’m guessing some of the football and basketball players liked their sport, yes, but—

LG: I don’t really understand the way sex works in the Harry Potter universe. It seems to be quite…

JS: Because it’s childish! And that’s what A.S. Byatt was writing about—which I don’t know if you’ve read her pieces critical of Harry Potter

LG: Yeah, I have.

JS: But you really like Harry Potter, from what I can gather from your blog.

LG: Yeah. Well I think Rowling makes distinct choices what it is that she’s going to deal with and what she isn’t. One of the most significant things to me is that she opted out of having Harry be a reader. Harry comes to Hogwarts without ever having read a fantasy novel in his life, which is flatly impossible. If he had grown up in that household, in the abusive step-family’s household, in that tiny room, all he would’ve done was to read his Narnia books to shreds, and then he’d have all these strange ideas when he got o Hogwarts about how magic is supposed to work.

JS: And then it doesn’t work out right.

LG: Yeah. He goes there as if he’s never read a book in his life.

JS: Yeah. It’s funny that you say that, because in the context of when I first read about The Magicians on Scalzi’s blog, I, of course, like a lot of English grad students, I’m a wananbe novelist-type, and I was about two-thirds of the way through a novel called A Glimmer in the Dark that also had people with special powers—but “magic” is ever named, of if it is named it’s mocked a little bit, like in Tolkien. So I was about two-thirds of the way through this and characters are constantly referencing fantasy novels, because they’ve read fantasy novels too. So when I first heard about The Magicians, I thought, “Oh, shit.” My second thought was of course, “Obviously I have to read this novel.” It was hilarious because I was thinking along the same lines.

LG: Yeah, well I’m sure there’s plenty of room to run with it. I think that that kind of—for lack of a better word, “literary self-awareness”—is a very productive angle for fantasy. I don’t see a lot of self-interrogation in fantasy novels. Which I don’t think is necessarily a criticism, I’m just very curious about it. When I read Watchmen for the first time, it was a very primal reading experience for me: to read a superhero story that aggressively attacked the very foundations of the conventions on which superhero stories are built. I fucking got off on that. That was very important to me. And the result was the realist superhero story I ever read.

That’s the end of the first part of the interview; you can read the second part here. A few follow-up thoughts:

Regarding the issue of solving problems:

I think that for a very long time—an embarrassingly long time—instead of solving problems, I tended to buffer them. Something would come up and I would think, ‘Well, that sucks,’ but I’ll stick it in the buffer, and when I get to Narnia, I’ll basically clear out the whole buffer. And not literally Narnia, but I would decide that if a certain that was coming up—if I got into college, for example—it would solve everything and I would never have any problems again. So I would ever really solve problems: I would put them off and lay them away for a time when they would get solved by the course of events.

I’m reminded of the song “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” which points out that success brings with it problems of its own, just of a different kind than what might’ve come before. It seems that people, especially young people, think that if they can just achieve “X,” where X might be success, or the significant other of their dreams, or money, or whatever, they will have it made.

But that doesn’t seem to happen very often in the real world: we swap one set of problems for another, unanticipated set, and happiness more often comes from within regardless of one’s circumstances. I’m stealing that idea from two major sources: Stumbling on Happiness, as mentioned in the interview, and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about how he survived the Holocaust through withdrawing within himself. Neither idea is especially new—Stoic philosophy got at some of the same principles millennia ago—but both offer fresh takes on how and why these kinds of issues exist.

But relatively few people seem to understand this idea. Maybe I’m projecting my own feelings, and those I sense from friends and acquaintances, but it’s nonetheless what I sense.

Grossman says, that “I didn’t really understand how to engage with reality.” Neither do I, and I’m busy trying to stop that from happening, because it seems like that’s not always a positive thing.

As far as Hogwarts versus Brakebills, Hogwarts never seems that scary, and there aren’t very many unknown unknowns—that is, things about which the professors and students know absolutely nothing. That lessens the sense of horror and wonder.

There are known unknowns, like the power of various enemies, but very little of the truly terrifying things that are completely unexpected and dangerous. It’s one of many reasons why I don’t find Harry Potter satisfying. And most things in the world aren’t good or evil: they’re self-interested. Too few fantasy novels acknowledge that. Maybe too few novels in general acknowledge it, but to me it seems more prevalent in fantasy than literary fiction, and I think The Magicians is a useful corrective in that respect. I hope more fantasy novels will grapple with it. I would like to think that A Glimmer in the Dark, which I mentioned above, does, but whether it will see its way to publication at some point remains to be seen.

An interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and Codex, Part II

Note that this image is shamelessly stolen from Grossman's siteThis is the second part of an interview with Lev Grossman, author, most recently, of The Magicians, which is out in paperback. You can read part I here.

Jake Seliger: Just like in some ways The Magicians feels much realer than most other novels because it actually incorporates sex, and there are all these funny, dirty phrases—the kinds of things that buddies and I have talked about and that you hear around. Janet says, “I’m freezing my tits off,” at one point, and it’s like, “I know girls who talk like that.” But girls in fantasy novels never talk like that.

Lev Grossman: The first time I wrote the word “fuck” I could hear tens of thousands of elementary library sales just vanishing into mist. But that was the book I wanted to write.

JS: That’s a very good reason for writing it, because trying to write to the market seems like a fool’s errand in many respects.

LG: Yeah, I mean, I was happy to go on that errand, and I probably would have, but for some reason—I just couldn’t do it.

JS: Which in some ways is good, because maybe that’s what helped make the truer book that became what it is.

LG: I think that’s probably true, yeah. It’s a rare example of my not selling out in my life.

JS: Why a rare example?

LG: I’ve historically been drawn to large, powerful institutions like Harvard. I went to Yale. I joined Time Incorporated. These huge, monolithic institutions. I tend to embed myself in them. It seems very safe.

JS: I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school, which I found interesting. I went to Clark University in Massachusetts, and in high school I was the co-editor of the newspaper, and one of the girls who was co-editor the year before me went to Harvard. I went to visit her, and I learned something very useful about the Harvard mystique: when Harvard kids are drunk or puking in the toilet or whatever, they look and act remarkably like everyone else.

LG: Yeah, they do that sober too. It’s a much less magical place than you would expect.

JS: I’m not sure I would expect it to be magical. Did you expect it to be?

LG: Yeah, but that’s because I was an idiot.

JS: That’s funny too, because I spent almost no time thinking about college when I was in high school, and I didn’t get particularly wonderful grades, and the future was just sort of like a gray mist that was out there.

LG: I was like this disgusting, grade-grubbing, Gollum-like creature who only thought about college. Colleges, of course, where I wouldn’t have any problems any more.

JS: I feel like I met you.

LG: Yes, you probably met me, and didn’t especially like me. I was so obsessed with that, and I didn’t think there would be any problems after that.

JS: We think there aren’t going to be any problems after moment X, and then there are. Quentin finds this out when he’s working—there are always these moments where magic is depicted as being really hard. Early on, The Magicians says, “Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off and became very good at it.” It seems like this description can apply to a lot of life. The magic is really hard. It seems like accomplishing anything is really hard.

LG: It’s Quentin’s one gift, basically. He’s a real wonk. He works hard.

JS: I’m surprised he picks up magic tricks, as opposed to something like computer programming or math, which seems like they get analogized to magic—math seems analogous to math in the novel.

LG: My sister’s a mathematician, or she was, and my talent for math is just average. It seemed very magical, what she did, and it still kind of does.

JS: Computer programmers adopted the word “wizard” from fantasy novels. It’s in the Jargon File. If you’re a wizard, you’re a master because you can make the computer do something that it shouldn’t be able to do.

LG: It’s true. There aren’t many computers in The Magicians.

JS: It seems like you always need a way to have electricity not work [in fantasy novels]. When I was working on A Glimmer in the Dark, conveniently if you used the power, it would shut off electricity—because that often time makes for more satisfying drama. And for sword fights!

LG: It’s an absolutely essential cheat, and that was one of the big cheats in this book. I wanted Brakebills to look like a nineteenth-century country house, and I didn’t care what I had to do to make that happen. There’s no good reason.

JS: If you have the Internet, some of the romance of old books and that kind of thing—or having to memorize old spells—goes down. Because if you have a massive spell database, you would just read that. There’s no app for spells in The Magicians. The girl I’m dating is in med school, and she wants to get an iPhone because she needs an app that lists symptoms of diseases and stuff like that, so she queries “funny knee, runny nose, kidney problem, what does that mean?”

LG: There’s a series of fantasy novels, that I haven’t read, set in a world where electricity and magic are not incompatible, and, in fact, it is possible to do magic by running an app. Computers basically, when they execute code, they are capable of casting spells. That struck me as a really fascinating idea. And I was pissed that I didn’t think of it.

JS: It is a fascinating idea, but it also seems like one that can easily go wrong. Good fantasy often requires limits and places where power stops, so you don’t get into a God complex where you have a character who becomes God.

LG: I looked at that, when I read the premise, I thought, “My God, who the hell is going to take that on as their world?” I didn’t even know how you would start hashing out the rules.

JS: The Magicians feels so rules-based: there are limits, there are things that are unknown. That’s part of what’s so satisfying. It’s not like you’re constantly running up against a barrier and then you knock it right down.

LG: The question of the world being rule-governed is one that was really paramount to me. And I felt like I was negotiating between—something very weird happened, when you move from C.S. Lewis, to le Guin, to Rowling. In C.S. Lewis, magic is essentially miraculous. There are people who do magic, but they’re all evil, mainly Jadis, and the Magician, in The Magician’s Nephew.

JS: In Tolkien, Galadriel says to Sam, you use the same word—magic—to describe the deceits of the enemy as what I do. [Her actual quote is regarding the Mirror of Galadriel: “For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel” (Fellowship II, vii, 377).] For her it’s just something she does, not magic per se.

LG: Which is closer to my view. And then you move to le Guin, where magic literally is a language, and then to Rowling, where magic borders on the technological. It’s so completely rule governed that if you swish and you flick and you say, whatever you say.

JS: It seems very easy.

LG: It seems very easy, yes.

JS: And you’re reacting against that here with the rhetoric of magic being difficult, and the practice and the practice and the practice.

LG: Again, something that Rowling wasn’t interested in but I was. I wanted to know why magic was hard, and why some people could do it and some people couldn’t do it.

JS: There’s that speech that I believe Eliot gives toward the beginning

[Here’s the speech: “The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well […] One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the dedicated and startlingly charismatic faculty of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly. And five […] some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”]

and then he gives five reasons, and the fifth reason is that some people just can’t do it for reasons that aren’t apparent. And there’s that aspect of mystery again.

LG: I couldn’t tie off all the threads.

JS: You shouldn’t tie off all the threads.

LG: Then magic ceases to be magical. It becomes mundane. It becomes thermodynamics. Or the magical equivalent thereof.

JS: They go to Fillory, and they find—at least Alice and a few others—can still manage to do magic, although the Circumstances and I believe some other things have changed. So they still manage to translate, and perform some bad-ass magic, for lack of a better term.

LG: They really have to recalibrate for Fillory, and they do so at different rates.

JS: Quentin at a lesser rate, it seems. But he manages to cast Magic Missiles. The Magic Missiles seem to be more devastating than they are in Dungeons and Dragons.

LG: They are effective. I think, yes, they are effective. Either those monsters are really, really low level. It’s a what—D4 damage? Something quite low. Quentin, he figures it out during his weird mourning period with the Centaurs. He gets quite leveled up during that period.

JS: We have to go back to that terminology of leveling up.

LG: It turns out, there really isn’t a better way of talking about it.

JS: Even though it feels much more organic than that in the novel, because they’re learning and what not. Although it’d be funny if they had a stat ring or something like that, because then of course everyone at Brakebills would do it, and they would start comparing whose is bigger.

LG: Oh, completely. The metrics aren’t quite that precise. They have a general idea, who is strong and who is weak.

JS: And then they’re always comparing each other, like people in actual classes. Who’s the smartest, who’s the most knowledgable, who’s the most capable, who gets laid the most?

LG: But then, you know, look at Josh, who’s sort of flukey. He has a lot of juice, or whatever you want to call it, it’s just he can’t deploy it reliably.

JS: Which is somewhat problematic […] As far as the actual moving to Fillory, Anaïs, she really gets off on the bloodlust aspect, the killing aspect, in an almost psychopathic way. Can you speak more to that, or is she just an unappealing character and that’s who she is?

LG: She represented a personality type that we hadn’t seen up to that point. Which is somebody who doesn’t have this American sentimental attitude toward violent conflict. Maybe it’s a European thing, coming out of a culture that remembers what it’s like to have wars on its own soil. Maybe she’s just sociopathic. I think she probably is.

JS: She mixes that up with sex too. There’s that line where someone says, did you see her looking over Dint’s shoulder? She was pressing her tit into it.

LG: She just has empathy problems, basically. She’s one of those people.

JS: She’s almost encouraged to have empathy problems because in the labyrinth there just seem to be monsters.

LG: I cut out a sustained ethical argument about whether they could kill the monsters or not. Just to keep the tedious—

JS: What made it tedious?

LG: Fantasy and morality—it’s hard to represent morality in a nuanced way in the context of the fantasy genre. Things rapidly trend toward a black and white. I was having trouble hanging onto the shades of gray.

JS: You did a very good job of hanging onto shades of gray. That’s part of what is satisfying.

LG: That was one of my goals. I feel like if there isn’t a powerful, single antagonist, like Voldemort, who magnetizes everything into poles, well, I wondered what it would be like. If you remove that term from the equation, suddenly, everything becomes more complex.

JS: And here it does so effectively. Martin seems to be driven mostly by power for its own sake. Or he’s moved beyond human morality and has become the monster or the Beast.

LG: As you might notice, Martin is connected emotionally to Quentin, and on some level, is a frightening vision of the person Quentin could’ve become. Somebody who’s obsessed with Fillory and remaining there and then not returning to Earth. It’s not worlds away from Quentin. Martin just made some very dark transactions in order to stay there.

JS: So we’re going back to the idea that there is some aspect of forbidden knowledge, or places that people shouldn’t go.

LG: Yeah.

JS: You say yeah, but in a way that makes you sound very unconvinced. Like there’s something more there.

LG: I’m trying to hold onto my status as the fantasy writer who’s into shades of gray. Martin is a very difficult character because I’m not happy often with the way fantasy novels portray evil. I don’t find—as much as I like Harry Potter—Voldemort to be an especially compelling villain. I think the White Witch actually really is. So it troubled me a lot, the question of Martin’s evil. A lot of, sort of, bad DNA in the fantasy genre.

JS: Bad DNA. You’ve used that term of “fantasy DNA” before. I think it was in another interview that you said, “Fantasy novels share so much DNA with each other anyway, because the convention of the genre are so firmly established, that you’re almost always reworking an idea somebody worked before you.” But it seems to me that you could take out fantasy and insert all genres, or all models. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I think it’s Adso who realizes that books talk to other books. And he realizes intertextuality. So why limit that comment to fantasy novels? And also, why DNA? Why that metaphor?

LG: That’s a good question. I think I’ve always been concerned with DNA because I have an identical twin, who, in theory, I share 100% of DNA with. Well, I stick to my guns about fantasy. Genres are by their nature conventional, that’s what makes them genres. But I stick to my guns with the idea that there is a higher degree of continuity between fantasy novels than between most other novels within a genre. I see more biodiversity—I don’t say this as a bad thing, fantasy is the genre that I love—but strictly in terms of raw biodiversity, I feel like I see more of that in science fiction, or comics, or detective fiction. Not that I’ve made a thorough survey of detective fiction. I don’t read it very much.

JS: It’s hard to read all genres, because there are so many books out there.

LG: There are so many things that are just really rock solid fantasy. Think of a dragon, a sword, magic castles, knights. The building blocks—it’s very easy to point to them.

JS: And if you can point to them, the novelist should be taking them away, or doing something weird or unusual with them. Which you’ve accomplished and is part of what I was shooting for in A Glimmer in the Dark.

LG: I would never presume to say what novelists should do. But that’s what I wanted to do. What happened to A Glimmer in the Dark by the way?

JS: I think I finished submitting it to agents in December, and a bunch of them took either partials or fulls. And then all of them eventually declined, for various kinds of reasons. Which to me always makes me slightly crazy, because I’ve been a wannabe novelist type for a while, and I’ve gotten in a cycle, where starting with the novel I wrote before Glimmer, I started getting a lot of bites. The first two novels I wrote that were actually feature complete and proper lengths and what not—now I realize weren’t actually very good. Although I thought they were better at the time. And then finally I wrote one called A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night, which steals a line from the John Donne Poem: “So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, / But get a winter-seeming summer’s night.” It’s about two journalists at the University of Washington who investigate a maybe rape in the Greek system. Finally I figured out how plotting works, especially, and how character works, and with that I finally started getting requests for partials and fulls, and then I’d get back these rejections. One would say, “too much research.” Another would say, “Research is great but characters are dead.” All kinds of stuff. And with Glimmer I’ve gotten a lot of the same kinds of things. I got a lot of generic—well, not generic exactly, but ones that basically said, “I don’t like it, try someone else.”

LG: As irrational and non-meritocratic as the publishing system is—

JS: Writers are irrational as well, because if I was rational, I would stop writing.

LG: Well, the agent part of it is, I feel, the least well-organized, and it’s absurd how that works. It’s very difficult to crack that.

JS: After I got all these eventual rejections and what not, I was bitching and moaning and telling my girlfriend I was going to stop writing fiction and focus on academic or other things for a while because I was an idiot, which I am. Robertson Davies has this great line where he says [quoted in the Guardian], “Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ ” So I was bitching and telling her, I’m not going to do it anymore. Then we went to Seattle together and were sitting in French restaurant called Voila. I’m from Seattle, so she’d just met a lot of my friends. I looked at her and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you wrote a novel with a guy and a girl and they were thinking about getting married and the guy decided to make a game of it and poll all his friends?” This is not autobiographical. Should I get married or should I do? So I started writing Asking Alice […]

LG: That’s great.

JS: It’s a little bit like—I’ve been watching The Pacific on HBO, and they hit the beaches and get machine gunned. That’s a little bit how I feel. I take two steps on the beach and get machine gunned. I think this will be more of the same.

LG: I don’t know.

JS: There’s no answer to it. It’s very random and chaotic.

LG: I have to say, my first novel, Warp, was a complete failure. It only had representation because a woman I went to Yale with dropped out around the same time. I didn’t get a very successful agent except by accident.

[…]

Warp was a disaster. Codex, it took us a year and a half to sell it. It got 20-something rejections.

JS: So the rejection never stops.

LG: No. That was a cruel period. At a certain point you just have to ignore the data.

JS: Grad school is the same too, which everyone warns you about before you go to grad school. But you went and dropped out, if I recall. Were you ever a Derrida reader?

LG: Oh sure, yeah, I went to college in the late 80s, when he was all the rage.

JS: Did you ever read his essay “The Law of Genre?”

LG: No.

JS: What you were saying about genre earlier reminded me of it, because he says the law of genre is that genres are not to be broken, but we must break the law. I wish I could give a better account of it.

[…]

I was reading Codex on the way over here, and with Edward you see a lot of the same stuff Quentin’s going through.

LG: I suppose it’s inevitable.

JS: I don’t know if I’m like the fiftieth asshole to say, “Hey, I see your earlier book has some of the same themes as your later book.”

LG: I haven’t read Codex since it came out. My memory’s a bit fuzzy.

JS: Also, you have this question of childishness in Codex, and people are always accusing each other of that in The Magicians. […] It does seem dangerous to extend childhood unnecessary or unnaturally. That’s one of the things John Barth writes about: the dangers of trying to extend innocence past where it belongs. The Sot-Weed Factor is phenomenal.

LG: When I read Lost in the Funhouse when I was a freshman in college, I thought, my God, that person has said everything that I ever wanted to say in fiction, there’s no point in me going on.

JS: Funny how that can happen.

LG: And then I never connected with a book of his the same way.

JS: Did you try The Sot-Weed Factor?

LG: I did. He wrote a lot after that. […]

JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add or you’d like people to know?

LG: No one ever says anything in response to that, do they?

JS: Yeah! They say all kinds of stuff. [Here I tell a long story about working on my high school paper where this question saved my ass because I was interviewing someone who’d won a big jazz award, except I didn’t know why I was interviewing him. I learned some useful lessons in high school.]

LG: Once I interviewed Jack Nicholson, he was doing the press for—not As Good as It Gets. He was doing the press for a terrible movie. Something’s Gotta Give. Horrible movie. He had this interview or whatever, and the phone rang. The message was, this is Jack Nicholson, there’s something very important I forgot to mention. I called him back, left a message, but I never found out what it was.

JS: Bummer. […]

LG: I’m a big panicker. I never come up with anything good on the fly.


 

That’s the end of the interview, with a whimper, not a bang. Although Grossman did mention that, in this blog post, he stole the concept of Fuck-You Money from Cryptonomicon; I responded that that’s an excellent place to steal from.

A few other thoughts: I mentioned that “I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school.” In person, Grossman’s not; if he was once, he’s shed that identity.

Grossman said, “I would never presume to say what novelists should do.” But I would stick to my assertion and would presume to say what novelists should do: something that isn’t already being done. Something that tries to break formulas to the extent possible. Something, in short, novel. I like quoting Milan Kundera’s assertion in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

I think Kundera is a bit overwrought, but his point is taken: aspiring to be average, to merely use what’s been given to you—why bother?

Regarding Asking Alice: If you’re curious, as of this writing, the agent mentioned to Grossman said no, as did a bunch of others, and I think two agents have fulls or partials right now. I’m working on a new novel called One Step Into the Labyrinth, which I’m about 70,000 words into, and which is done in the style of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and set in an imaginary version of Seattle.

Interviewing Brady Udall today

I’m heading up to Phoenix to interview Brady Udall this afternoon. His new novel, The Lonely Polygamist, concerns the economic and social travails of Golden Richards’ unusually large family, which are complicated by the family’s patriarch taking a job to build a brothel, rivalry and sexual awakening among the teenage children, and jockeying for position among the wives.

T.C. Boyle interview for The Women: Part 2

The first part of this interview is available here. I spoke to Boyle after he appeared at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, regarding his new novel, The Women. The last exchange prior to the questions below is:

JS: In some ways, given how Kitty [Frank Lloyd Wright’s first wife] is portrayed, it’s hard to see her laughing at herself too.

TCB: No, of course not. She did fly a bit outside the parameters of what I was interested in in this book. She was probably the most difficult to deal with. First of all, she wasn’t going to be one of the principal players—I knew that. But it’s a little difficult too because what is she but a victim? You’d have to do an entire book about that relationship to really do justice to that sort of personality. And also a personality where a couple had married… young, for sex, joy and love. And he moved on. He went for progressively more sophisticated women. Mamah was a feminist, she was college educated as Kitty was not—and as he was not—and Miriam had her European connections and spoke fluent German. This was something exotic. It was something to aspire to. So I think he would have moved on in any case.

Jake Seliger: In another kind of book connection, do you like Robertson Davies at all?

T.C. Boyle: I’ve read a couple of his books, yeah.

JS: In The Deptford Trilogy and especially in Fifth Business, there’s a description that resonated for me with The Women and with Kitty. In that book, a character named Boy Staunton marries the village sweetheart and eventually really moves past her. [Dunstan Ramsay…]

TCB: Hell, Rabbit Run is a classic of that.

JS: Which I’ve never actually read.

TCB: A lot of writers, like Updike, like Wolfe, like Bellow, have written about divorces. But I always felt, I don’t want to write about divorces. I want to write about a windy day in the Shetland Islands. Or I want to write about shit and death in Africa. I don’t want to write about divorce. But in dealing with this particular character, his story had to do with divorce.

JS: And especially because of the nature of when it takes place. If you write about divorce today, you get a very different sense.

TCB: So one of the joys that I have in working is that there are no limits, and I don’t have to follow anybody’s limits except my own. And it’s very freeing.

JS: I think it shows in the final product as well, because each book is a very unexpected one. I don’t know what I expected about The Women, but I do remember thinking to myself, “Frank Lloyd Wright? Where does this come from?” Obviously there’s no answer to that. I’m not asking where the idea bank vault is. But it’s… gratifying to read as well. Who knows what’s coming?

TCB: Like Frank Lloyd Wright or Pablo Picasso or… many artists I admire, like John Coltrane, you follow them. They’re on a search. They’re on a journey of self-discovery. And if that can be communicated to the audience, then that’s what art is supposed to do. But I don’t have any consideration, ever, in anything I’ve written, except just what I want to do. I’ve been very fortunate in getting an audience and making some money along the way, and it’s great. But of course, I never even consider that. I have no consideration except exploring something and keeping it going. I’m excited about whatever’s going to be next.

JS: In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he has a little line where he says that when various people ask him in ways more polite or less polite, “Do you do it for the money, honey?” He says no, and I never have. I realize Stephen King has this rap as not literature or something below it.

TCB: He’s doing what he’s doing, and that is who he is. And you have to admire him for it. And furthermore, he’s a friend whom I love… he’s one of the most generous, and witty and good men I know. And a good reader. A deep and wonderful reader.

JS: I think On Writing shows that in many ways throughout. Actually, he references one of your books—

TCB: I know… I will never write such a book. I love John Gardner’s On Fiction, but I disagree with it because really there is no prescription. You can’t prescribe for any artist anything. And if you did try to make a prescription or a rule, I would then do my damndest to write the greatest story that proves that it’s wrong. John Gardner’s stating an opinion. And he’s demonstrating how he works. It may be of interest to everybody else who’s a draftsman too—

JS: Evidently it has been of interest.

TCB: Right. But it really has no relevance on any particular writer’s life. So many times when I’m doing a gig in public or going to a college, so many of the people in the audience are writers. They want to know if there’s some magic potion—I mean, they’re so interested how you do it. But how I do it is only interesting to contrast with how somebody else does it. It has no relevance to you as a writer. You are going to do it in your own way.

JS: In The Women, it seems like Wright is trying to dictate what’s going on with his apprentices.

TCB: It’s called being a control freak.

JS: Or even something more extreme than that, if that’s possible.

TCB: You couldn’t make this stuff up. He designed the house, the furniture, the plates, the cutlery, the drapes—

JS: The occupants.

TCB: —and the dress the housewife wears. This is true control freak territory. But I also relate to it. I’m a complete and utter perfectionist nut hole. I would be very upset if somebody moved into my home and lived in it. So he was upset when somebody moved into the house and lived in it… he was a con man and he had to get some patron to give him the money to build his design. But once it’s built, he was notoriously prickly about the actual owners who paid way over cost to get there to move into their house, because it spoils his design. And it’s crazy—it’s irrational. But on the other hand, I relate to it.

JS: I forget who it is, but I think it’s either Miriam or Mamah, who says that to get back at Wright… she’s going to hang doilies on the window—

TCB: That’s Miriam.

JS: I thought so. It’s one of these great little moments, where it showed her knowledge of the character and showed us a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright as well. What’s the ultimate thing you can do to get back him? Destroy his—

TCB: But mock it, or change it. Spray graffiti on it, in a way.

JS: [Miriam] has these little artistic pretensions here and there, like where she says she’s pondering a carving a block of “Carrara marble” and “doing something significant and lasting.” These pretensions never go anywhere, at least not artistically.

TCB: I keep using the term lucky. I’m very lucky in that I was able to discover what I could do, and then devote my entire life to it. And then do it, I hope, at the highest level. But think of all the other artists who are as engaged as I and desperately want to do it, but for various reasons do not. Maybe because they don’t have the abilities, or they don’t have the determination. Maybe they haven’t had the breaks. Whatever it is. So… [there’s a real pathos about the failed artist.] I give my life up to my art. That’s who I am. I could not live without it. I’m sure there are many many people who feel the same way, but they have no audience. They become discouraged. And maybe there are people like Miriam who love the idea of art and their own self-concept more than the art itself. They aren’t able to do it. Then again, these are real people. She really did do the real hands in the Louvre. I’m taking these wonderful actual facts and making them into symbols.

JS: I think those couple lines about marble were effective because she reminded me a little bit of those people who are wearing literally or metaphorically a beret and going around… but who don’t seem to produce a lot. Miriam seems like a follower in a way, yet she has this great passion and desire for some kind of control.

TCB: But she’s a dilettante.

JS: A dilettante. There we go.

TCB: You might know my essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” where I’m likening this joy of creation to a drug addiction. I’m extremely driven, and I judge my fellow artists and people in general in the world by what they produce. Not who they are—for admiration’s sake. I mean, I will take anybody… for human contact.

JS: I was going to ask, how does Miriam function in that respect?

TCB: I think you already know the answer. I am not going to be an acolyte of anybody. So I judge people by their work and their devotion to their work and the quality of the work. That’s when I become a fan of somebody—not because of their persona or propaganda or rumor or anything like that. And I’m sure you do too. You mentioned several writers tonight. You like them because their work turns you on. Same with filmmakers, etc. Those are my heroes. I don’t give a damn about politicians or generals or TV stars or anything like that. That’s beyond my ken. I don’t want to know about it.

JS: That’s funny, because it was a problem for me the other night when I was hanging out with a bunch of people the other night, and they were discussing reality TV shows in detail…

TCB: I don’t know anything about TV. But I have close friends… who are TV writers, and they are as dedicated to what they do as I am. However, I am the creator of my universe, and I am in charge of it, and I am uncompromising. Nobody lives in my book, nobody lives in Frank Lloyd Wright’s house. They [TV writers], however, are part of a machine. And there’s joy in that. There’s joy in collaboration… that’s like playing in a band. I’m part of nothing. I am just me. I am doing my own thing. And it might be crazy. Maybe I could collaborate with people. But there’s no way in the world I would ever consider making a creative decision unless it was 100% me. There’s no way I could work with anything else in anything, ever… I think that determination helps you create your art. I see that in people like Frank Lloyd Wright or Kinsey. Maybe that’s not entirely mentally healthy.

JS: I have a suspicion that the mentally healthy are not the ones who are changing history or changing the way we think. They aren’t the ones who are prying at the chink in society.

TCB: … If I were to make pronouncements about my own work, I would think that what I’m always writing about in many, many different ways, is us as an animal species living in a finite planet which has no reason that we can fathom… as with the Kinsey book, for instance. The distinction that Kinsey would make between romantic love and the mechanics of sex in the human animal [is virtually nonexistent]. Who are we? That’s what I’m always addressing.

JS: It’s interesting what you say about human love versus the act of sex because I have a pet theory that much of life and what meaning we find in life is what meaning we want to give it… in my mind, if we believe in romantic love, it exists for us, and if we don’t believe, it doesn’t.

TCB: And if you believe in God, then he exists for you, etc.

JS: In The Women, a lot of the characters seem to go from that belief in romantic love to the reality of living with…

TCB: Shit, misery, death and horror. I guess the point when you come down to at root—to create art is a display of control over the universe in your own small way. The search for meaning might be an evolutionary dead end. People… presume that evolution advances. But not necessarily. There are adaptations that are fatal. Perhaps our brains allowed us to dominate all other animals and build this place. Okay, great. But it might be a quick dead end…
It’s an obsession, and it’s an imposition of meaning on a meaningless and random universe. That’s all it is. That’s what art is. And I suppose to some extent you could [say the same of] going to work at a shoe factory… To make something out of nothing. That is the thrill. And then of course we get into all the things we’ve been discussing tonight—how is it beneficial for you the artist in trying to sort out your ideas, your philosophy, your feeling about everything around you, and then how is that comforting to the audience to whom it’s communicated? That’s a great thing—that’s the highest and greatest thing that happens on this planet.

JS: Maybe they’re all different functions of control—

TCB: Sure.

JS: —trying to find some kind of control over what’s going on. Or what’s life, or something else. I guess the question is how far that sphere of control extend. Wright’s extended to the Imperial Hotel in Japan, with that little footnote noting that it was destroyed in 1964? 1968? The building there was destroyed, so—

TCB: You have to put it in the historical context as well. Wordsworth famously carved some poems into a rock—into a rock face, because he didn’t trust paper to last through the centuries. But of course it does. Now it’s out in the ether of the Internet.

JS: And in innumerable Norton Critical Editions—

TCB: [Laughter]. Yeah, that’s right. There are so many of them that the planet is probably tipping toward the English-speaking world just from the weight of those Norton editions.

JS: Some of which I have on my bookshelves.

TCB: Yeah, me too.

JS: Which is interesting the way books travel. There’s a strangely serendipitous experience tonight. I came in late, and I was sitting in the architecture section [of Changing Hands, the bookstore where Boyle spoke]. A bunch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s books were sitting there, and someone next to me was picking them up. It’s the kind of detail that in a novel would be too convenient.

TCB: You might know that another book came out last year, Loving Frank by Nancy Moran. [It deals with] Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah. I haven’t read it, obviously, because I don’t want to get put in the position of contrasting them. With the Kinsey book, Bill Condon made a movie named Kinsey

JS: Weren’t there two Kinsey movies around the same time?

TCB: I don’t know about that. Maybe there were. But I did meet Bill Condon and we got on stage and talked about two artists doing the same thing. It’s fascinating to me. What if ten artists in the same year had written about the same historical situation, or factual situation?

JS: It would be a Borges short story.

TCB: It would. But [think of] how various they would be.

JS: It reminds me of something at Clark. I had a creative writing teacher there named William Tapply. He wrote mystery novels. His observation was that if he gave us a situation or a prompt and said, “All of you are going to write about this, no matter what,” by the end of the year we’d have ten or twelve or however many [stories] that were so different that they’d be unrecognizable.

TCB: Sure.

JS: I think that speaks to the variation of form that happens in many kinds of art—

TCB: And experience. With seven billion people and a mystery that’s inexplicable as to why we’re here and who we are, to distinguish yourself is quite extraordinary.

JS: It draws women like Miriam to you.

TCB: That’s right.

JS: For good or for ill.

TCB: Whether you would create something that’s absolutely crappy art or great art, nonetheless nobody else could have done it but you. Of all the billions who have ever lived, at least you have that. Because you’re unique in your DNA and who you are and you’re the end product of all the generations from the apes right on to sitting here at this table tonight… You have art by an individual, whether it’s the kid in elementary school finger painting—which was probably the last time I had any satisfaction with graphic arts—or James Joyce. That art can only be produced by you because only you have these particular experiences, and only you are you. And that’s a pretty exciting thing in an anonymous world.

JS: But one can have that kind of desire and expand to say, “How far can it go?” That might be where something like the Imperial Hotel comes up. There are these moments in The Women where [Wright] is anticipating the greatest hotel in the world.

TCB: And he used a very odd mix of styles. He was prefiguring the Aztec style of the textile blockhouses in L.A when building [the Imperial Hotel]. It’s part Craftsman, part Japanese and part Aztec. It’s so bizarre. I’ve only seen interior photos of it, but it’s got these walls of blocks, as if it were an Aztec temple.

JS: I actually know virtually nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright except for whatever’s in the zeitgeist and what I read in your novel.

TCB: You would know pretty much his whole career and what he did from this novel. My object is not—I mean, a thousand books have been written about him and his architecture by people who are experts. But I do love the history for itself. Any reader who comes in knowing nothing about it will now have a whole idea of his career and his personality and how people felt about him and so on.

JS: Especially about the trajectory of the women he was involved with, from the honeymoon period to its extreme opposite.

TCB: It’s a kind of horror story. And we love horror stories because they’re not happening to us yet.

JS: In The Women, Wright and some of the women—especially Miriam, who I keep coming back to—

TCB: Me too. She took over for me.

JS: Maybe that was part of the function of the novel. Wright, Miriam and others seem to perversely court the press they claim to loathe. There are all these descriptions about how they hate the press, and yet they seem to keep coming back to it.

TCB: It’s self-dramatizing, especially for Miriam. Now she’s famous. Now she can give press conferences, whereas before she was just someone who had a pair of folded hands in the Louvre. As Michael Silverblatt pointed out… I don’t think it’s as difficult to sculpt a pair of hands as it is to sculpt the whole bust or the whole figure. So she’s a dilettante. She interests me as much or more as the master himself. As you said earlier, what is the satisfaction level for these people and what do they want?

JS: Miriam wants recognition, in an almost Hegelian way. She wants to be in the spotlight. Or like a contemporary starlet.

TCB: Of course.

JS: If you want the TV metaphor, use the starlet, and if you want the intellectual metaphor use Hegel, but either way they’re working toward the same drive to recognition that Miriam seems to have—

TCB: It’s an age-old story, isn’t it? Because it furthers the other purpose to life, which is to procreate. Everything else is irrelevant. [Miriam] was, by the time she met Frank, too old to procreate, so she wanted something else altogether. I suppose to devour him, to be him.

JS: In her demands, she seems to be closest of all the characters to his mother. There’s this Freudian impulse running through [The Women] too, where his mother gets mentioned here and there.

TCB: He was a mama’s boy, and Anna was an extremely powerful figure. Again, my job is really a job of synthesis about this material. This could have been a 1,200 page novel if I want to give all the characters their due. You could write a fair novel about Anna herself.

JS: In some ways, if one were to group his mother and Miriam on one side, you’d have Kitty on the exact opposite. She’s weak, but to me, her weakness almost became her strength. It’s harder to attack or demonize somebody who’s not going to fight back. On page 335, there’s a wonderful little section with Kitty viewing Frank: “She heard him call after he, but she didn’t turn. And when she got to the motorcar—the chromatic advertisement of self and self-love…” that little phrase here between em dashes—

TCB: And that’s her point of view. She’s beginning to feel resentment. But I just believe she was more of a simple sole—

JS: Because he’s leaving her for Mamah—

TCB: She… was not ready to grow beyond the initial relationship she had with him when she was 16. And he is. It’s going on all around the world tonight as we’re sitting here in a million different households.

JS: She links his car to his development as person, and I think that’s what draws me to the phrase, “the chromatic advertisement of self and self-love.” She seems not to really understand him. The question arises: can anyone understand the great man or the great person at all? I’m not convinced that Milk, for example, understands Kinsey.

TCB: For me, the joy of such a scenario is that he… may never admit to himself what has happened to him, and the reader certainly draws back in horror. And there’s something of that going on in this book too. The quote that you’ve just given us indicates that for all her earth-mother qualities and so on, and her quality as a victim, [Kitty] is withdrawing herself from the cult of admiration of Frank Lloyd Wright—at least for that moment in her anger. And again, her role could’ve been greatly expanded. But it’s already 450 pages. Every story has to find its emphasis, and every story is a discovery. Which is why I cannot get enough of doing it.

JS: It was interesting discovering the antithesis of Miriam towards the back when we get to Kitty, who’s got this very different thing going on. The levels of growth in terms of Frank’s women parallel his growth as an architect.

TCB: Yes, I think so. And I don’t think Kitty could’ve imagined someone like Mamah. They were friends—they were in the same club together. Mamah certainly had designs on Frank. And again, I’m dealing with the truth of actual, living characters. She didn’t marry—Mamah—till she was 30, when [Edwin] was old for her. He asked her three times over the years to marry him, and she refused, so it wasn’t exactly a raging passion. So all the elements are. It’s so great—in any story of this dimension, you could write a whole novel about any moment in any one of these characters’ lives.

JS: Sure. It’s common to write novels about a single couple’s marriage.

TCB: Yeah. But that’s too confining for me.

JS: It wasn’t too confining for—well, I was going to say Madame Bovary, but that was chiefly about her leaving her marriage.

TCB: Or Anna Karenina, and I love those books. They’re beautifully done… but I make that comment because that’s simply not what my interest is. Yes, I have to deal with these kinds of relationships in here because the larger story and the larger explanation is what fascinates me, and this is part of it. And that’s good because I haven’t done something exactly like this before. Maybe I’m examining some of that with regard to Milk and Iris in The Inner Circle. I’m always trying to go someplace where I haven’t gone before. And so there are female protagonists, who I haven’t done so much in the past. Maybe eventually if I keep going in this vein I’ll eventually write novels that only concern cats. And everybody’s a cat. I don’t know I’m always trying to do something new.

JS: And then someone would say to you, “It seems like you’re writing science fiction.”

TCB: And I would say, okay.

JS: And then you can say you already did that in, um—

TCB: A Friend of the Earth. I do notice that in the book I’m writing now… there is an antagonism between a strong-minded young female and a Peck Wilson [from Talk Talk] kind of character… I can see some of these patterns repeating themselves. But I think there are endless variations that I can play on.

JS: Wasn’t that the old saying—you can say any novel is about, “A stranger comes to town or someone leaves town?” So the question is not so much about the abstracts as the particulars.

TCB: In the case of novel I’m writing now, it’s more like, “The golden eagle comes to the island and eats the fox.” [Laughter.] That’s the plot line.

JS: I’m going to have to make a note of that and remember. It’s still some ways off, but I’ll be wondering to myself [what happens].

TCB: I’m just shaking it out. Frank Lloyd Wright would say he’d shake out the design of a given building—well, that’s what I’m doing. I’m shaking it out… and so far I don’t see any end in sight.

JS: So you still feel a sense of freedom? Because [in the Women,] people keep talking about how they want to be free. And then they go get themselves entangled again, and there’s this running line about freedom.

TCB: It raises the question of what freedom is and if anybody has the possibility of getting it. And again I come back to this doctrine of art, where art is freedom. It enables you to control the world and enables you to escape it. You can be free at least in those moments when you are absorbing art from some artist who you admire, or if you’re the artist creating it. It’s absolute freedom. And art of course is not anything that’s done for any reason other than itself. It’s not done to push a program. It’s not done in order to make money or sell a product. It’s not done for revenge necessarily. It’s done for its own self, without compromise.

JS: There’s a little book by a guy named Gabriel Zaid called So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. He’s got a line in there when he says that no newspeople will ever report that today a 14-year-old read Plato and felt free.

TCB: Yeah, of course. That’s a very cool thing.

JS: One starts to wonder if any of the characters in The Women might do well to occasionally do something and think, “Now I feel free,” as opposed to cursing the press or using the press.

TCB: [Which is] again wrapped up in our desire to control other people as well as control the world. Yeah, that quote you just gave is pretty wonderful. Art—at least literary art, and maybe film art—tends to dwell on the sensational and the negative and so on. I think the hardest thing for a fiction writer to do is to write something about someone who is purely good.

JS: It would be boring.

TCB: Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, for instance. Pnin. Pnin is one of my favorite Nabokov books. But of course it has tremendous pathos too… I would take it as a challenge. And I would hope someday to write a book and represent someone who is good without being venal about it, and without standing on a soapbox. And you also have to define what good is. For instance, as has been said a million times, by the time you get from Jesus to Milton the devil has already won the hour. I felt something of that sense in Talk Talk too. Peck Wilson is such a dynamic character. And I’m still wrestling with that in the new new novel too… there’s always a new challenge. That’s why it keeps going.

TCB: The people I’m intrigued by and admire have been freed and lucky enough to be creating their art without any other consideration. Many other writers who we both admire, I’m sure, [have this impact].

TCB: That’s what art is: it’s entertainment first, then it’s a communication. And I love to turn them on. And I took a lot of criticism for this in my early career, but of course I just piss on them from a great height. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I have the credentials. I can do anything I want.

TCB: [Reading] should be subversive. It should be something you want to do in order to say, “Fuck the world.” That’s why we do it. That’s why we’re doing it. So I like to remind [audience members] of that. I don’t believe that there’s this sanctity to literature, or that it only exists in the academy. It’s not. It’s a living art that’s supposed to turn you on.

JS: Many of the characters you’ve written about—and I’m thinking in particular of Kinsey—have a very subversive quality to them. That’s very profound in the society they exist in at the time. If you want to change things, you have to have a subversive quality.

TCB: I don’t know if I want to change things. I would be a politician or something if I wanted to change things. I just want to make art. That’s all. But of course I have a worldview, and that worldview is expressed in the art. Perhaps I will change things. Certainly if you read my work, you could take a hundred question questionnaire and know what I stand for. But art is not advocacy. Art is art.

JS: Do you think Wright would say the same thing about architecture? He seems to have a kind of advocacy for simplicity and a clean aesthetic.

TCB: I’d go with choice B. He had a very definite idea of what art should be, and he attacked what was not fitting within his categories. And he did create a new synthesis of art in the prairie-style house. And there was a kind of political statement being made.

JS: I keep coming back to Tadashi, [and on page 317 Daisy leaves]. When he talks to her, she just says, “Yes, I’m leaving.” He says, “Of course, all this happened a very long time ago and I’m aware that it is peripheral to the task at hand, which is to give as full a portrait of Wrieto-San as I can.” It’s very affecting in a way I can’t quite fully articulate.

TCB: Yeah, Jake, I was saying a minute ago that I would like to create a good character. Tadashi is a good character because he’s an innocent. The beauty for me in such a narrator—like The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is one of my favorite books of all time—is the dawning realization that something is wrong. Milk has it too. Maybe you’ve devoted your life to something that isn’t worth it. However my dear fellow, we’re going to have to wrap it up shortly.

JS: My question, which I often end with, is “Is there anything else you want to say?” Or, that I might add, is there a question out there you wish someone would ask you but they never do?

TCB: Why have I been unable to save the whales?

JS: And your answer?

TCB: Because I’m not close enough with Obama, of course. He could simply pass his hand over the ocean and they would all be saved. I’ve learned very recently that he’s converting Lake Huron into wine.

JS: I look forward to drinking it. I’m sure I’ll see in Trader Joe’s shortly.

TCB: Of course I’m a Democrat and voted for Obama, but I think people place unrealistic expectations at his doorstop in a way that these figures I write about—comical figures—and they’re going to disappoint their followers, and followers want to recreate them in some God-like way. And they’re not God-like. They’re invested in their own projects.

JS: Interesting that you mention that God-like aspect. There’s a writer for “The Atlantic” named James Fallows who—

TCB: Yes, I know. I know his work.

JS: I really admire him. When General Petraeus was first appointed to oversee American forces in Iraq, Fallows said [Petraeus would suffer from the “New Jesus” complex], where some new person comes into a situation or organization—

TCB: And they’re going to redeem everybody.

JS: Right. The messiah is here! The problem is, inevitably you’re just a person, and if you’re trying to work in a complex or difficult situation, even your best efforts might not achieve—

TCB: That’s precisely why I made that Obama joke. People have to understand that they have to redeem themselves. That’s what I’m writing about.

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