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 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.

T.C. Boyle — The Women

(Note: I posted along interview with Boyle about his new novel here.)

T.C. Boyle’s The Women begins towards the end, chronologically speaking, and yet it ends with a different kind of end in the form of a fire, which reminds one of the transience of all artistic endeavors. The novel’s structure is appropriate for such a wittily recursive work, in which diva-esque architect Frank Lloyd Wright is examined chiefly through the perspectives of the various women who attracted him (and vice-versa). Those women represent an evolution of his own being, but they never just function symbolically; even the throwaway characters have fabulously apt descriptions attached to them, as when the vindictive Miriam’s attorney is described as having “a low, considered voice, deeply intimate, as if he’d been born to collusion.”

The Women is “written” by the imaginary Wright apprentice Tadashi Sato, and the sophisticated but clear narrative structure could have long academic papers written about it. Tadashi’s his grandson, however, is Irish and has “translated” the book, meaning that Tadashi’s frequent footnotes sometimes deal with the translated aspects of the story, giving at least four levels of frame: from Wright to his wives and lovers to Tadashi to O’Flaherty-San. One need not notice these narrative games to enjoy the novel and its presentation of numerous reactions to the great and greatly narcissistic man at its core. Even calling him a narcissist might be unfair: he’s more a man obsessed by his art, and in that respect virtually everything else comes second or lower. Consequently, what seems like narcissism might simply be drive.

We see Tadashi’s influence in moments like this:

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, and I don’t wish to dwell on the negative, not at all. Suffice to say that I stayed on at Taliesin, grudgingly at first (and perhaps I should have defied Wrieto-San and Daisy’s father and all the rest of the world…).

That, anyway, is the line of reasoning that excuses his sometimes ill behaviors. A less forgiving reader might see him as taking “from the rich and [giving] to himself and he didn’t give a damn about anybody so long as he got what he wanted,” as Miriam thinks in one of her bitter stages. The same could apply to her, since she’s constantly belittling those she considers inferior—which is virtually everything. Miriam thinks of herself as “high, higher than any of them,” with little reason that’s apparent to us. Still, her charges are not utterly baseless despite her grandiose posturing, and the alternate view of Wright sees him using his abilities as a cloak against charges of making and breaking promises with impunity and discarding people like excess building material.

Building metaphors occur throughout The Women and make for an obvious commentary on the artistic process more generally, but Boyle is too canny a writer to make Wright’s “process,” if he has one, explicit. The New Yorker chastised him for this, saying “Unfortunately, the novel avoids any sustained consideration of Wright’s relationship to his art—a passion arguably more important in forming his genius than any of the women in his life were.” But I think that’s part of the novel’s point: an artist’s relationship to his art can’t really be explained or depicted. We can only see its effects, like a black hole whose presence we discern by the debris around it. The metaphor isn’t perfect, since artists throw off light while black holes absorb it, but in Wright’s case he might absorb the personalities of the women and disciples around him. The novel’s fundamental tension revolves around how Wright “really” is versus how he’s perceived, and the novel’s strength comes from leaving that tension unresolved: we’re left with a debate more than a resolution, as we so often are in life. That’s mimesis to the world and faithful to the view of the great artist as inexplicable.

Tadashi sometimes strikes an aggressive posture for a seemingly passive character, but all of his passion shows through passive aggressiveness—perhaps the act of “writing” a history of Frank Lloyd Wright that often doesn’t show him in a flattering light is his ultimate revenge, and one we are meant to see through as we proceed through the novel, and especially in its last pages. Tadashi also undermines some of the novel’s claims; Miriam, Wright and others ceaselessly vilify and try to use the press. At one point, Miriam thinks that, “The papers were full of the story, headlines trumpeting disaster, the least detail pried from the wreckage by the ghouls of the press…” This description might be one of the more charitable considerations of the press. One wonders if Wright would have thought of Boyle what he does of the press, but Boyle has the advantage of writing long after the fact, when a reinterpretation of a figure who slides perilously towards myth can, in turn, re-appropriate that figure for the present. Boyle succeeds in doing so with panache that fortunately defies my analytic descriptions.

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