Interviews

William Gass, The Art of Fiction No. 65

Interviewed by Thomas LeClair

In the book-bound alcove off the bare room where he writes when at home, William Gass gave this interview in July of 1976. Sitting in cutoffs and T-shirt, sipping on a bottle of Ballantine ale, Gass, at age fifty-three, resembles a boyish headmaster at his Sunday ease. When he talks, the small shifts of his compact body, the voice’s inflections, and the mind’s dartings reveal a writer harsh on himself and his work, though generous in his responses.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel you are writing full throat now?

WILLIAM GASS

I hope so, but if I am a hound, at what am I baying? I am basically a closet romantic, a tame wild man. When I was in college, I closed the closet door behind me. Then, for all sorts of reasons, some artistic if you like, but at bottom personal as bottoms are, I became a formalist: I became detached; I emphasized technique; I practiced removal. I was a van. I took away things. And I became a toughie, a hard-liner. When I was in high school, I chanted Thomas Wolfe and burned as I thought Pater demanded and threatened the world as a good Nietzschean should. Then, at college, in a single day I decided to change my handwriting . . . which meant, I realized later, a change in the making of the words which even then were all of me I cared to have admired. It was a really odd decision. Funny. Strange. I sat down with the greatest deliberation and thought how I would make each letter of the alphabet from that moment on. A strange thing to do. Really strange. And for years I carefully wrote in this new hand; I wrote everything—marginal notes, reminders, messages—in a hand that was very Germanic and stiff. It had a certain artificial elegance, and from time to time I was asked to address wedding invitations, but when I look at that hand now I am dismayed, if not a little frightened, it is so much like strands of barbed wire. Well, that change of script was a response to my family situation and in particular to my parents. I fled an emotional problem and hid myself behind a wall of arbitrary formality. Nevertheless, I think that if I eventually write anything which has any enduring merit, it will be in part because of that odd alteration. I submitted myself to a comparatively formal, rather rigorous, kind of philosophical training. I stuffed another tongue in my mouth. It changed my tastes. It wasn’t Shelley any longer, it was Pope. It wasn’t even Melville, it was James. Most of these changes were for the better because, being a little older, I saw more in my new choices than I had in my old ones. But now, after maybe twenty years of not going near Nietzsche—of even being embarrassed by my youthful enthusiasms—I find him exciting again. My handwriting has slowly relaxed and is now the sloppy kindergarten scrawl I had as a child. I suspect the same kind of thing is happening in my work. I am ready to go in any direction. But I hope I’ve learned that the forms are inherent, that the formal discipline is inherent, so that when I want to start improvising I won’t have forgotten how to dance. It wasn’t until I was ready to come out of my formal phase that I began to read Rilke. Once I took my thumb out of my mouth—well—soon there was no dike. So now I try to manage two horses: there is one called Valéry and another called Rilke. I remember I once compared writing to the image of the charioteer in the Phaedrus. Intellectually, Valéry is still the person I admire most among artists I admire most; but when it comes to the fashioning of my own work now, I am aiming at a Rilkean kind of celebrational object, thing, Ding.

INTERVIEWER

How much did this change have to do with your family?

GASS

I think a lot of it was deeply personal. Every powerful reason is a cause, accounts for a condition. When you decide to change your handwriting, and when you sit down and spend a day or more making new characters, you’ve got to be in an outraged and outrageous state of mind. I simply rejected my background entirely. I decided, as one of my characters says, to pick another cunt to come from. Did I come out of that hole in the wallpaper? Rilke has his hero Malte wonder. I just had to make myself anew—or rather, seem to. So I simply started to do it. And I think it very obvious now, though it wasn’t obvious to me then, that I should pick the way I formed words to be the point where I should try to transform everything. The alphabet, for Christ’s sake—I would have changed that, if I’d been able. So all along one principal motivation behind my writing has been to be other than the person I am. To cancel the consequences of the past. I am not the person who grew up in some particular place, though people try to label me as a local Midwestern writer. But I never had roots: all my sources (as a writer) were chosen. I chose to be influenced by this or that book or chose to be defined as the author of this or that. I think that for a long time I was simply emotionally unable to handle my parents’ illnesses. My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived. I still hate scenes unless I make them. My situation certainly wasn’t more severe than most people endure at some time in their lives, but I was not equipped to handle it. What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it. On the other hand, I am taking a damn long time to write the book. But I don’t know. What is psychologically best for a writer is what produces his best work. I suspect that in order for me to produce my best work I have to be angry. At least I find that easy. I am angry all the time.

INTERVIEWER

Have you spent a good part of your writing life getting even?

GASS

Yes . . . yes. Getting even is one great reason for writing. The precise statement of the motive is tricky, but the clearest expression of my unwholesome nature and my mean motives (apart from trying to write well) appears in a line I like in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” The character says, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But maybe I say it’s a motive because I like the line. Anyway, my work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile. That’s true even when I write to praise, as is often the case. If I write about Colette, as I am now, my appreciation will be shaped by the sap-tongued idiots who don’t perceive her excellence. I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can. But getting even isn’t necessarily vicious. There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighted. Justice, I think, is the word I want.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t there a line in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife about the pencil moving against the page with anger?

GASS

Something like that, sure. I am developing a theory about that in an essay I’m writing on creativity. One doesn’t want to generalize from what might be just a private psychology, but it seems to me the emotion is central. There is another sentence from Willie that should be mentioned here, though: “how close, in the end, is a cunt to a concept—we enter both with joy.” That’s the other line of mine I remember with pleasure. And both express something very close to me. If someone asks me, “Why do you write?” I can reply by pointing out that it is a very dumb question. Nevertheless, there is an answer. I write because I hate. A lot. Hard. And if someone asks me the inevitable next dumb question, “Why do you write the way you do?” I must answer that I wish to make my hatred acceptable because my hatred is much of me, if not the best part. Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world—every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste. There isn’t very much satisfaction in getting the world to accept and praise you for things that the world is prepared to praise. The world is prepared to praise only shit. One wants to make sure that the complete self, with all its qualities, is not just accepted but approved . . . not just approved—whoopeed.

INTERVIEWER

Did your years at Kenyon College have much influence on your later aesthetic positions?

GASS

Not directly. I was already very fascinated by Ransom’s stuff when I was in high school. I wrote an article on Ransom and sent it to him at the Kenyon Review. It was god-awful, but he was very sweet and returned it with a nice letter. I’d never met him, but I was so in love with the man’s “manner” I scrawled his initials in the books of his I owned and pretended to others that he’d signed them. When I got to Kenyon he did remember my essay, or was polite enough to pretend to. And that “manner” was real. When I was going to school there, the faculty were very much under the influence of Ransom and the New Criticism, but I think that influence was so widespread you’d have found it most places. I did audit a few courses that Ransom taught, but I didn’t take any courses in English while I was at Kenyon. I was busy taking philosophy and other things of that sort. And I found that I fought English classes. I was such a smart-ass I thought I knew much more than the instructor. No, my pretensions got ground beneath another heel. I couldn’t get published in the literary magazine—not a colorful fart, not a thumbprint. The students were very good writers; some of them were publishing in the Review already. And I held a small, limp pen; I was terrified and crushed; I couldn’t get anywhere; I was unbelievably bad; I was lousy. I knew the formalist ideas were in the air, of course, but I didn’t really come face-to-face with them in any extensive way until I went to grad school, so I think that the influence of Kenyon was predominantly philosophical.

INTERVIEWER

What was your orientation when you were working on your Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell?

GASS

I wanted to work in aesthetics, but they didn’t have anybody who was interested in the area, and I didn’t take any courses in the subject. They had a nice elderly man the students called “Bedsprings” because he rocked from his toes to his heels all the time and stared at the girls. Most of my courses were in language analysis, philosophy of science, logic, and the theory of meaning. The faculty finally settled on allowing me one wild paper a year which they would be agreeable about and not grade. What I eventually ended up doing was working with the philosophy of language and the theory of metaphor with Max Black. I had to learn to write analytical stuff for all these people, and it is not my natural manner. I hated it in lots of ways because I was working against the grain all the time. But it was very good for me. It was a superb faculty.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still retain that rigor?

GASS

I can still use it, though it isn’t easy. I still admire it. I hope I can recognize its many fakes. Now I don’t have to be what one would call rigorous very often anymore except in some classroom situations, because when I’m writing I find it very difficult to harmonize a desire for a certain kind of style with the rigor and precision appropriate to a certain kind of subject. The only compromise I can manage is expressed by the hope that I’ve done a reasonably thorough job on any philosophical issue before I start to write, so that beneath that fluffy, flamboyant style and all that sweet, sugary rhetoric there is some real cake—some sense at least of the complications of the problem. But I don’t pretend to be treating issues in any philosophical sense. I am happy to be aware of how complicated, and how far from handling certain things properly I am, when I am swinging so wildly around.

INTERVIEWER

It seems that the style no matter how flamboyant is always very precise.

GASS

Well, I hope so, and you are a kind person to suggest it. Rigor is achieved by pushing things very hard and trying to uncover every possible ramification, nuance, and aspect, and then ordering those things very, very carefully. I think that’s always valuable. Still, the kind of ordering you get in philosophy is quite different from the kind you try for in literature, although there is a similarity—an analogy. That’s one of the reasons why I admire mathematicians, I guess. You found beauty listening to Austin give a lecture—he presented a beautiful landscape of the mind. Everything was so crisp and beautifully drawn. It was like watching a good draftsman. It wasn’t as profound or original as Wittgenstein, for instance, but it was really a pleasure to hear such a careful disposal of ideas: a trash bag anybody’d be happy to plug on TV.

INTERVIEWER

Is Austin and Searle’s notion of speech acts of any use to you as a writer?

GASS

If you start talking about speech acts, what you are doing is connecting the notion of writing with a concept of performance. I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write. I can still admire the other—the way I admire surgeons, bronc busters, and tight ends. As writing, it is that foreign to me.

INTERVIEWER

But in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife . . .

GASS

Oh, sure, there I’m playing around with it . . . Yes, I was trying out some things. Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. I was trying to find a spatial coordinate to go with the music, but my ability to manipulate the spatial and visual side of the medium was so hopelessly amateurish (I was skating on one galosh), and the work also had to go through so many hands, that the visual business was only occasionally successful, and most of that was due to the excellent design work of Larry Levy, not me. Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says, “Oh yeah, I get the idea,” but that’s all there is to get, the idea. I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects. I’m still fooling around with visual business, but I am thinking of a way to make them sound. One problem, for instance, is trying to get the sense (in print) of different lines of language being sounded at the same time, or alternately, or at different speeds or pitch, as in music.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that the love of the word as a resonance or shape is the least understood of all aesthetic phenomena.

GASS

One of the things which children do early on is discover the ability they have to surround themselves with their own sensory world. Shit, piss, and bellow, kick and wiggle: that’s it! I think that what often makes writers is a continued sense of the marvelous palpable quality of making words and sounding them. My God, how Beckett has it. I have a very strong feeling about that love of making sounds. I think it must have been very enjoyable—in the old days—to form letters with your quill or pen and hand. I, for example, still have an old typewriter. An electric takes away from the expressiveness of the key. It was very important for Rilke to send a copy of the finished poem in his beautiful hand to somebody, because that was the poem, not the printed imitation. Writing by hand, mouthing by mouth: in each case you get a very strong physical sense of the emergence of language—squeezed out like a well-formed stool—what satisfaction! what bliss! That’s another reason why I like the metaphor, in Willie Masters, of cunt and concept. As an artist you are dealing with a very abstract thing when you are dealing with language (and if you don’t realize that, you miss everything), yet suddenly it is there in your mouth with great particularity—drawl, lisp, spit. When the word passes out into the world, that particularity is ignored; print obliterates it; type has no drawl. But if you can write for that caressing, slurring, foulmouthed singing drunken voice . . . that’s a miracle. Gertrude Stein said poetry was caressing nouns, and I think she was right, only I wouldn’t leave out verbs or prepositions, articles or adverbs, anything . . .

As a writer you are, of course, aware of the arbitrary relationship of symbol-sounds to their meanings; but no real writer wants it that way. In doing On Being Blue, I was struck by the way in which meanings are historically attached to words: it is so accidental, so remote, so twisted. A word is like a schoolgirl’s room—a complete mess—so the great thing is to make out a way of seeing it all as ordered, as right, as inferred and following. Now, when you take language out of the realm in which it is produced and put it in poetry and fiction, you transform it completely. Maybe that is the least understood aesthetic phenomenon. That process of transformation is perhaps the essence of creative activity. And if you take really bowel-turning material from the point of view of its pragmatic importance in the world, and surround it like kitty litter with stuff that is there purely for play, then you can get an electric line between the two poles clothes would turn white simply hanging on. The electricity of Elizabethan drama is total. They are talking always of life-and-death matters, but they are standing there playing with their mouths.

INTERVIEWER

Do you sound words over and over to yourself at the typewriter?

GASS

Yes. One time, two times, three times, times, times, times . . . That’s the final test. When that goes well, all’s well—well, nearly all’s well. And it stands. A bad line or a missed start will get scratched down so deeply in my head like a schoolkid’s desk he’s trying to carve “fuck,” “cunt,” and his name on, that it becomes extremely hard for me to start over and go at the sentence in a different way. I am almost never able to do that. If I’ve a botch at the beginning, I have to keep fiddling around until I have somehow fiddled it into a squeak, the squeak into the score. This damn imprinting is one of the hardest things I have to overcome. But I also appreciate Valéry’s account of how a poem came to him because and while he was walking the meter. When work is going well for me—which is rarely—I have a clear metrical sense of sound and pace. This whole problem is vital. When one section is singing, it sings the rest. I’ve heard many of the speeches in Elkin that way. The song began and sang itself. Prose gives you flexibility, and you want to use it to shift the whole mode or manner of voice within a paragraph or within a single sentence. So you must have a notion, some clues, which will do the job. Joyce fiddled around with a lot of things trying to get that done, but I didn’t get those clues of his until I heard him on records. Then I realized how he should be sung and that he had in mind a notation which isn’t present in the book.

One problem is that the reader isn’t conditioned, hasn’t the time, intelligence, patience, to perform the work. When you think of being a good reader, you tend to think of yourself or somebody as having a sharp eye, quick intelligence, who pays attention, follows this resonance of meaning or that, and has a good memory for what happened before, and all that admirable true crap. But who thinks of the reader as an oral interpreter? When I read a traditional novel, I never remember anything except language, the rhythms in the language patterns, and I do have a good memory for that. I think I forgot the basic plot of Middlemarch hours after I read it, and it was of course a terrific book. But the impression, the quality of its style, that I think I shall remember forever. One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him. But it takes time; you’ve got to figure out how to do it, and all this alters the temporal reach of the work entirely. Beckett is our best example. You look at the text and you see all those pauses. You say to yourself, yes, there are pauses, but you don’t pause. You don’t perform it. If you don’t perform it, you ain’t got it. In music, you can’t think the rests, pretend the silences. There happen to be some splendid Beckett manuscripts at Washington University, and they taught me a great deal. I went over a little story called “Ping” one day with the idea of reading it aloud. It’s about six or seven pages, but it is a half an hour or more in the reciting. If you do it properly, well spaced, larded with silence, then it’s overpowering. You gotta wait, you know, and wait, and wait, and wait, and we just don’t do that sort of thing—the world turns—who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation? A lot of modern writers, I remember saying, are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motorboats. The connections are all spatial and all at various, complicated, intellectual levels. They stand to literature as fastfood to food.

INTERVIEWER

Have you considered giving the reader some kind of extratextual directions on how to read, as Barth does in Lost in the Funhouse?

GASS

“The Pedersen Kid” has some. Willie is full of them. I keep fussing around, trying to find ways to symbolize what I want. But notation . . . notation . . . what a difficulty! The myth is that Joyce tried to indicate that the speed passages in Finnegans Wake should be taken by variously spacing the words. In the novel I’m working on now, I want, for instance, a certain word to sound like a bell the whole time the reader is reading certain lines. I want this bong going bong all the bonging time. I’m trying to figure out what device will work—on the page—not only to give the proper instruction to the reader, but make him begin to hear it—dead dead dead dead—the way it’s supposed to go. But as soon as you try to note it, the page goes crazy, and you get a dozen other things you want no part of.

INTERVIEWER

Is the reader an adversary for you?

 

GASS

No. I don’t think much about the reader. Ways of reading are adversaries—those theoretical ways. As far as writing something is concerned, the reader really doesn’t exist. The writer’s business is somehow to create in the work something which will stand on its own and make its own demands; and if the writer is good, he discovers what those demands are, and he meets them, and creates this thing which readers can then do what they like with. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers,” and then eventually she said that she wrote only for herself. I think she should have taken one further step. You don’t write for anybody. People who send you bills do that. People who want to sell you things so they can send you bills do that. People who want to tell you things so they can sell you things so they can send you bills do that. You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do.

INTERVIEWER

How important is it to you to establish some verisimilitude of character to release language?

GASS

Not terribly important. But what you are suggesting is. What I want to do is establish the legitimacy of the verbal source, which is sometimes a character, but it is sometimes a situation or some other kind of excuse. It must seem the right source. You mustn’t turn on your tub tap and get crankcase oil. But this has little relationship to how people actually might talk or how oil might actually flow. People tell me that my characters are going crazy, and perhaps they believe that because I don’t pay enough attention to verisimilitude. I don’t think they are crazy, but the heightened language, the rapid shifts of feeling, the kinds of construction I am fond of—these do make readers think that the mind they are experiencing is not an ordinary one, that the consciousness they’ve been made conscious of is unusual, and that therefore it must be unhinged, extreme. I have a problem with dialogue because it is difficult for me to envision the total context in which the heightened language I sometimes want to use for conversation is justifiable.

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that a number of the voices in your fiction are obsessional.

GASS

That’s an impression which may come from my methods of construction. A particular piece is likely to be the exploration of a symbol or a certain set of symbols, and this constrains the text. No meaning can go away without returning. If you’re writing an ordinary, naturalistic novel, you would be normally interested in the range and extent of experiences and responses and other people. I’m not. You’d want to give the impression of a large world, as if the land was larger than the feet of your fiction. Like Lowry, I want closure, suffocation, the sense that there is nowhere else to go. Also, I think the voices tend to reinforce the impression because I often locate the work in a single consciousness. Solipsism is one of the risks of the letter “I.” If we were really listening in on any person’s subconscious talk, it would sound pretty obsessional. One is consumed by one’s self.

INTERVIEWER

Is “Icicles” a kind of sport for you? It does create a voice—the real-estate salesman—we might hear on TV.

GASS

The central images I wanted to develop led to that—basically the idea of the icicles as a kind of property, then as part of real estate. And pretty soon I was into the real-estate business. I couldn’t give this language to the main character, but I did want to carry a certain notion of property forward as far as possible. I sort of backed into that, starting—as I usually do—with a concrete symbol that I wanted to explore: what can I do with the image of the icicle. I ended up deep in philosophical materialism.

INTERVIEWER

That is the way a lot of your stories start?

GASS

Almost invariably now. The only story that didn’t start that way was my first one, “The Pedersen Kid,” which had its story line first. All the others have begun with a very concrete everyday image—insects, icicles—or in the case of the novel subordinate suns circling the larger theme of luck—skipping stones, and so on. That’s where the unity, if you can find it in my work, comes from. I am exposing a symbolic center. When I think the exposure is complete, I am finished with the story. It’s more than peeling a peach.

I used to collect names as possibilities. Certain characters in a sense emerged from their names. I never conceive a character and then seek to christen it. I always have to have the words. I can’t even get a story going until I have the title. The title, though, is a direct statement of the central image. If I try to think out in outline some linear structure, then I start pushing my material in that direction like a baby in a pram. When you arrive at your destination, all you still have is a baby in a pram. I want the work to write itself, every passage to emerge from the ones which have come before, so I have to keep looking at what I’ve done to see what will come out. Usually nothing does and I have to rewrite my beginning until something does suggest itself.

INTERVIEWER

Do some of these images become emblematic for you? Spiders, for example?

GASS

Yes, they become a certain kind of emblem. I am very fond of spiders. I am as fond of them as my family allows me to be. I used to have a house out in the country and it sheltered many spiders. Once, quite a large, handsome spider spun his web in the john, where I could conveniently watch him. And of course the family wanted that ughyukky spider removed. I regarded it as a convenient symbol of the imagination: spinning, lying in wait, sucking dry. Maybe my family wanted the imagination removed. But partly I used the spider because, in general, I like insects. I like to watch them operate. I think animals have the same fascination, but except for a few household pets, you have to go out to the zoo to see them. You can watch a spider the way you can sometimes watch people on the New York subway. You can inspect them. Raccoons move too much, and are hard to get close to. That’s one reason I spend a lot of time examining objects. They hold still. They aren’t threatened or embarrassed by your stare. I don’t regard as much as I once did, but I realized that I was looking for sources of language, and now my source of language is almost always other language instead of things in the world. Words are the supreme objects. They are minded things.

INTERVIEWER

You described the most important intellectual experience of your life, seeing Wittgenstein, as almost wholly with content. How important is the notion of activity to you?

GASS

That was Wittgenstein’s famous definition of philosophy: it was an activity, a certain way of doing which was without end. That notion is very similar to the one Valéry had about poetry. He was interested in the activity of writing, the consciousness in the act of composing, creating, and less so (he said) in the final result—which wasn’t for him final, only the sign of an absolute weariness. Well, I’m very interested in the process, of course. I can become my subject. But I am interested in the process because of what I want it to lead to—the story, the poem. Perfection. But the process is a great lure, and you can postpone failure by dallying along the way like Ulysses. I can hardly get from one sentence to the next.

INTERVIEWER

Is that why you write so slowly?

GASS

I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity. Time can give you a good critical perspective, and I often have to go slow so that I can look back on what sort of botch of things I made three months ago. Much of the stuff which I will finally publish, with all its flaws, as if it had been dashed off with a felt pen, will have begun eight or more years earlier, and worried and slowly chewed on and left for dead many times in the interim.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that when you first started writing you wrote only sentences. Was this the result of your philosophical skepticism about language or a program of exercises?

GASS

Experiments. I have no skepticism about language. I know it can bamboozle, but I am a believer. No. My experiments were stimulated by my reading of Gertrude Stein. I didn’t really get to know her work until I was in graduate school. Talk about having your head tipped. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know anything about the basic forms that I was supposed to be managing. Nothing. So I studied her very carefully. I am still studying her, and I have always learned a lot. She made me understand how little I knew about what could be done with the basic units of all writing. And she raised philosophical questions about what the basic unit really was, or whether there was one, and about the functions of grammar. In philosophy we were interested in some of the same things then, but we weren’t then raising important aesthetic issues. Now every issue is aesthetic. I don’t know which is worse. But one of the wonderful things about Gertrude is that her repetitions rearrange the aesthetic grammar of the sentence and impose this new or special grammar upon the ordinary syntax of English. When I started to examine what she was up to, I realized that I had to begin to get a feel, the way a painter would, of what happens when you try a sentence this way or try it that. To write sentences out of context is a fool’s business, but I set about doing the fool’s business. You can’t really talk very sensibly about the content of a sentence out of the context of its use, but you can talk a lot about the form of the sentence and how the forms are interlaced and how they interact within a sentence. I practiced a long time, I mean a long time, writing sentences and connecting sentences and generally fiddling around. I think I learned something. But not enough. I’m still doing it.

INTERVIEWER

How do you define the aesthetic difference?

GASS

Much of it is musical, most of it is defined by the gut, and theoretically—well, it gets “defined” by negation. Most sentences are formed for the sake of communication. For efficiency, clarity; but rhetorical forms are there for the sake of effect, for persuasion. There are poetic forms too. Of course, you end up simply feeling that things are going right or, alas, that they are not.

INTERVIEWER

Does it have to go against the grain to be right for you?

GASS

I don’t think so, but it’s true that I’m unlikely to trust anything that isn’t against the grain. I am unlikely to trust a sentence that comes easily. I should love to be able to write with ease, but I can’t, and when I do push ahead or rush on, the result is invariably poor. I have a bad attitude toward things which come easy—wine, women, work, or song—an attitude quite false to the facts, of course.

INTERVIEWER

Two words recur throughout your criticism—”model” and “metaphor.” What is their importance to you?

GASS

I love metaphor the way some people love junk food. I think metaphorically, feel metaphorically, see metaphorically. And if anything in writing comes easily, comes unbidded, often unwanted, it is metaphor. “Like” follows “as” as night the day. Now, most of these metaphors are bad and have to be thrown away. Who saves used Kleenex? I never have to say: “What shall I compare this to?” A summer’s day? No. I have to beat the comparisons back into the holes they pour from. Some salt is savory. I live in a sea. But that’s why I am so lost in the Elizabethans, because they seem to have sunk in the same ocean. What is not metaphorical, is not.

Leave nothing well enough alone is my motto, and I have been studying the phenomenon of language called metaphor since graduate school. Metaphor has been thought to be a pet of language, a peculiar relation between subject and predicate mainly: unhealthy, odd. But you can make metaphors by juxtaposing objects, and in lots of other ways. Suppose the relation between literary language and the world were itself metaphorical. Suppose the relation between language and life is like the relation between the subject and the predicate in a metaphor. If the analogy held, then one might find in it a way to express the relationship between literature and the world which wouldn’t be quite so severe as the formalist position I once took required, and yet avoid the imbecility which makes it into some “meaningful” commentary. I’ve been principally interested in establishing the relationship between fiction and the world. If we can see that relation as a metaphorical one, then we are already several steps in the direction of models. Theory, in science, is frequently conceived as that which flows from a model. Indeed, making the model and constructing the theory are not always two different activities. The kinds of misinterpretation which arouse my wrath—not to say contempt—are paralleled, one finds, by misinterpretations of scientific facts/theories/laws which lead to paradoxes and confusions of every kind.

INTERVIEWER

If fiction is a metaphor, what is a good metaphor for fiction?

GASS

I have thrown out a number of them, and I wouldn’t regard any of them as much good. A fiction is certainly not a mirror dawdling down a road. If I could think of a good one, I would put it in a novel. It’s not an emotional model of the world—that’s too narrow. It’s more like a phenomenological model.

INTERVIEWER

A character in The Tunnel is writing a limerical history of the world. Why don’t you write poetry other than your limericks?

GASS

I can’t. I would love to. When I was young I tried, but it was awful. Not just bad, but monumentally so. I tend to use the word “poetry” as a generic term for everything I approve of, but I am unable to manage those narrower forms for any length of time or with any success. I can explore prose sentences and prose-paragraph structures. Those can be pretty tight sometimes, and certainly as formal as a poem. But when it comes to the damn poetry itself—well, I don’t really know why I am so bad. Maybe I’m just a big dog and need a lot of room to turn around in. I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form. I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem. I have to be constantly discovering my form while I am working. In poetry, when you write the first two lines you have to have flung out the form fourteen or twenty-five lines ahead of you, but it takes me more than twenty-five lines to find the form I should have flung out ahead of me in the first place.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned playing around with form before. How does that work in, say, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”?

GASS

Suppose somebody says, “Why don’t you write a piece of journalism about how it is to live in the Midwest?” It is not an interesting suggestion, and I don’t think I am going to do it, but I nevertheless get curious. I take a few notes. I take a lot of notes. The notes are of themselves a kind of form. Here are a lot of little headings: under this, such and such, under that, so and so. Then you begin to see that you’ve got these little blocks of information, and you start thinking, Maybe I could harden these up and move them around. So you start thinking what kind of pattern of presentation would achieve the best effect. It is like establishing a kind of very large sentence. You ask yourself what kind of existing form your notes are closest to. Notes! of course! you cry out. You can hear me, I imagine. And so word resemblance leads you on, not form. So you’ve really got a musical problem, certain paragraphs you are arranging, and you imagine you are orchestrating the flow of feelings from one thing to another. You want each note to have a certain integrity, but of course you are already thinking of how notes fit together. And you’ve got this private metaphor of note card and note in music. Once you get your key signature, the theme inherent in the notes begins to emerge: the relationship between art and life and all that. And the town you’ve started to describe is called Brookston, but you don’t want to call it that, and in a moment the B you’ve reduced it to is reminding you of Byzantium, which goes with the theme, so you decide to explore Byzantium poems, though with an ironic twist. You start out with “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” Have I really come to be? No. Certain themes are developed that parallel themes in Yeats. The story moves through a series of suggestions, of formal relationships. And eventually what you want to do is take account of the kind of formal relationship that begins to emerge simply from a set of notes—simply from an accumulation of data—from the flow of commentary and the appreciation of a set of poems. For me any piece is a play of various forms against one another. When I am playing with forms, it is often simply to find a form for something odd like the garbage. I love lists. They begin with no form at all . . . often, anyway. A list of names is very challenging. There is one right order, and the problem is to find it.

INTERVIEWER

You are doing this damn thing on the floor of your study, shuffling and threading these cards—or forms. The reader is reading the story once, ten times, twenty times. He will never catch up with you.

GASS

He doesn’t need to. If you convey, in the kind of story I’ve been going on about, if you convey a certain note-taking quality, a little crude sociology, that’s all that’s necessary. All these other devices are primarily for the psychological side of the creative process, not for the reader. The reader has to feel a certain set of moves. He doesn’t have to know the calculations. Still, if you took the trouble to label the sections of “In the Heart . . .” as you would describe a rhyme scheme, you’d find a pattern. I played with lots of different patterns before I found one that suited me. But what suits ultimately is not the fact that something fits an abstract pattern. You have to feel a resolution and a movement in the fit, otherwise it’s no good. Most of these formal tics are private.

INTERVIEWER

Is much of the activity of your writing simply to amuse you or interest you as an exploration, with no hope that the reader will catch any of this? Is it necessary for you in order to keep writing?

GASS

Amuse may be the wrong word because it hurts so much, but in essence what you are suggesting is correct. Psychologically these games are necessary. Every writer plays them, though what they are varies a good deal. It is also a protective device which can be dangerous. You may feel that certain things which you have put down on the page are justified because you know how they satisfy your blessed apparatus. That, of course, won’t do. I think for most writers there are little private projects which each work undertakes, and that these are best studied by people who are interested in the psychology of the writer. The Homeric parallels in Ulysses are of marginal importance to the reading of the work but fundamental to the writing of it. Proust had to be suckered by Bergson. And so on. These beliefs and these forms have to do with the security and insecurity of going forward into the void. Writers have certain compulsions, certain ordering habits, which are a part of the book only in the sense that they make its writing possible. This is a widespread phenomenon. Certain rituals have to be gone through—in cooking, for example—which don’t affect the final product at all.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes a writer—Nabokov, for example—will engross the reader in his little games. What then?

GASS

I’m in favor of fun. Nabokov surfaces a lot of his game, however, and forces the reader, or the assiduous commentator, into paper chases. I don’t think much of that, though I guess the assiduous commentator gets no quarter. Nabokov wants people to follow his private games with the same kind of interest he takes in them himself. Sometimes the intricacies and the little secrets and the codes really work for the reader; things open up and then it is really quite wonderful. Powerful private symbols are related to this. Lowry, for example, was obsessed with certain things. All great writers are. Lowry put down those obsessions on the page, and because they are there, he believes they will have an effect. It is the kind of error the beginning writer makes too—all this stuff that is so important to him never really gets to the page at all.

INTERVIEWER

What is a working day like for you?

GASS

Well, we usually get breakfast and the kids off to school by nine o’clock, and I start to work soon after. It’s essential that I be in the midst of something, so I try to quit work with new material that now needs revision in the typewriter. In the morning I can start right off working on those revisions and hope that by the end of the day the process of revising will have sent me forward into some new material. If I get interrupted while I am, in a sense, at the end of something—a sentence, a paragraph, a scene—then I’m liable to have trouble getting back into things. At Yaddo I worked all morning, all afternoon, a great part of the evening, every day. At home I usually work in the morning and for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Lately I have been getting some work done in the evening, but that’s because I have not been teaching at all. I haven’t been talking about grading papers, preparing lectures, that sort of thing. The real writing process is simply sitting there and typing the same old lines over and over and over and over and sheet after sheet after sheet gets filled with the same shit. And then I discard or abandon material for weeks, months, during which time I start something new. Usually I have a great many projects going at the same time—in the sense that a start of some sort has been made. I get very tense working, so I often have to get up and wander around the house. It is very bad on my stomach. I have to be mad to be working well anyway, and then I am mad about the way things are going on the page in addition. My ulcer flourishes and I have to chew lots of pills. When my work is going well, I am usually sort of sick.

INTERVIEWER

Did Jethro Furber take over Omensetter’s Luck because of this methodology?

GASS

He certainly did. Furber went through a lot of midwives being born. When I first wrote the book, Furber wasn’t even in it. That was the version that was stolen. Then I rewrote it to get the stolen version back. Furber was still not there. I looked at what my memory had regained from the thief and concluded that the book, although it was now much better than the original, was really no good. It was then that Furber began to emerge. The book began to be the book I should have been writing all along. Now, a lot of people find that the Furber section is where the book goes to hell. As far as I am concerned, it is the only justification for that book.

INTERVIEWER

Is Furber the hero of Omensetter’s Luck because he has the best rhetoric?

GASS

Yes. In my books, if anybody gets to be the hero, he’s got the best passages. Hamlet has the best lines. Milton’s Satan has the best lines. Furber is what the book turned out eventually to be all about. That’s not quite right. It’s rhetoric the book is about, and The Tunnel is about rhetoric too. It’s more completely, more single-mindedly about rhetoric, about the movement of language and the beauty and terror of great speech. Omensetter is certainly not the major figure because he is basically a person without language. He is a wall everybody bounces a ball off. Now anybody who emerges in my work with any strength at all is somebody who has a language, and that’s why he’s there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like the stories still?

GASS

As soon as I finish something, it’s dead, so my writing a preface about it, as I’ve just done, is very hard. I rarely read things that are in print when I give a reading somewhere. I publish a piece in order to kill it, so that I won’t have to fool around with it any longer. The best I can say is that when I have to look back on the stories, I am sometimes not too terribly ashamed. Omensetter’s has got more passages which make me blush. There is one story in the collection which still suits me in the sense that when writing it I did fundamentally what I wanted to do. That’s “Order of Insects.” I think that’s the best thing I ever wrote.

INTERVIEWER

How have visual art and music influenced your practice of fiction?

GASS

The kind of aesthetic necessary to comprehend the modern movement in painting up through, let’s say, abstract expressionism, is one which I find very congenial. In great part it preceded the development of a similar kind of theory for literature. I think the impact of formalism, constructivism, and so on, was very great in the visual arts, even though music had been free to go its independent way for some time. Painting, though, had seemed to be about things, had seemed to be mimetic in a basic way, and now it was possible to see how such vulgarizations might be abandoned and real purity achieved. There were great paintings which didn’t get their artistic value from some sort of statement they were making about the world. Then we could begin to wonder whether it was Fra Angelico’s piety or his genius as a painter that makes his painting so wonderful. For him, of course, piety and painting were one. Not for us, though. There’s nothing new about nonrepresentationalism, of course, but it is still very much misunderstood, and very much opposed.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a lot of theorizing now about silence. Are you ever tempted by silence?

GASS

Obviously not. No. I think I am perfectly aware of the dangers and limitations of language. But the people who are talking about language running out as if it were the oil supply, or of reaching beyond language, as if there were a better plate of peaches just beyond the pears—well, that’s just cheap romanticism. Beckett likes to work with silences the way a musician works with rests, though he works within a linguistic context, and even if he lowers and restricts his vocabulary, it is all language nevertheless, and language is all he is basically interested in. Then this glorious emptiness is employed as a romantic cliché by people who persist in using language all the same. They say they are going beyond the limits of language toward something or other and this excuses their execrable style. No matter. They will pass away.

The fact remains that we are moving away, in terms of science and other communications systems, from what one ordinarily calls language. I remain interested in what we are going to use to talk to ourselves with. One of the fundamental problems with film is not simply its easy effects, and its conceptual poverty. That may in time be overcome. Film may be able to carry universals in a useful way. But you can’t show films to yourself. There is no way of communicating inside your head but speech. And if you can’t talk well to yourself, who can you talk to? You simply aren’t anybody. I frequently imagine people who get bored with their own talk, who don’t talk to themselves very much. Talk is essential to the human spirit. It is the human spirit. Speech. Not silence. That’s also Beckett’s point.

INTERVIEWER

Does the aggressive motive you mentioned earlier make you a crabby reviewer?

GASS

I’ve been crabby about a few books, but I’m not often very mean. In a way I regret the times I have been, because I am rarely angry with the author. Once in a while you run into work which is actually corrupt. But by and large, I get crabby with critics. What happens is that you don’t write against the book, whatever it is, but against some asinine prevailing critical climate in which the book appears. All these writers who have been touted as great—it is not their fault that they are just poor writers like the rest of us, trying to do their best, and having the damn bad luck to be praised by fools because they write so badly fools think they understand them. And the clubhouse journalists, the critics, who fall first for traditional kitsch, then experimental kitsch, for the latest French fad, for obfuscation, sensationalism, who are eager to froth at the mouth with the latest rage, with a collection of biases as large as the unemployed, and no standards, no nose for quality . . . well, as you can tell, it makes me mad, and so sometimes I light into the book. Which isn’t a bit fair to the author. I’ve sworn not to do that anymore. Then there are times when I bitch about a biographer because the biographer is not interested in precisely these qualities in the subject which caused, presumably, the biography to be written in the first place. Then there are other problems. How can you write well enough to write about Colette? Find the verve required for Henry Miller, the depth for Lowry, or for Borges the proper philosophical wit?

INTERVIEWER

Who are some living novelists you respect?

GASS

Well, the question leaves out so many dead ones who are more alive. I think Barth is one of the great writers. I have admired his work since I first encountered it. I think he is incredible. Several of his books, in particular The Sot-Weed Factor, are the works which stand to my generation as Ulysses did to its. His habits of work are wholly unlike mine, and the kind of thing which engages him is quite different too. He is a great narrator, one of the best who ever plied the pen, as they used to say. He has been accused of being cold, purely mental, but I find him full of passion and excitement. And what I like about his work in great part is the unifying squeeze which that great intellectual grasp of his gives to his work, and the combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic pride and energy and total control. I really admire a master. He’s one.

A lot of the work of Hawkes is extraordinary, breathtaking. Everybody likes Beckett. Now. It’s silly to mention Bellow, Borges, Nabokov—so obvious. And of course Stanley Elkin’s work I like enormously. Some of Coover’s, too, I find extraordinarily interesting. Control again. Gaddis. Control. Also Barthelme—a poet. A great many South American writers write rings around us. Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers is a great book. I taught Hopscotch once. I’ll never get over it. Márquez, Fuentes, Lima, Llosa . . . it is always an exciting time to be a reader. Lots of European writers are overblown, especially some of the French experimentalists, but Italo Calvino is wonderful. Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works is impressive. In general, I would think that at present prose writers are much in advance of the poets. In the old days, I read more poetry than prose, but now it is in prose where you find things being put together well, where there is great ambition, and equal talent. Poets have gotten so careless, it is a disgrace. You can’t pick up a page. All the words slide off.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever read anything about your work that interested you?

GASS

It all interests me when I start to read it, but soon the critic is explaining to me what I meant, and then I get bored (whether I agree with what’s being said or not). I start to skip. But even a good critic isn’t likely to tell me anything about my work I don’t already know, since I’m pretty careful and self-conscious in what I do. I also don’t take much pleasure in approval. I have been well treated by critics on the whole. I would like to be deeply pleased by what they say, but my pleasure doesn’t last very long. A two-second rush of warmth to the head, that’s all. I feel a certain sense of relief that I got away with it again—that the critic didn’t dislike it. Once in a while a negative criticism will be perceptive. You protect yourself from critics, of course, by anticipating all their censures, so you can say, “Yes, of course, I saw that long ago.”

INTERVIEWER

If you were going to write an essay on your own work, what would you concentrate on?

GASS

I think I would immediately start talking about the manipulation of language, and I’d end writing just another essay on style. If I am anything as a writer, that is what I am: a stylist. I am not a writer of short stories or novels or essays or whatever. I am a writer, in general. I am interested in how one writes anything. So if I were to write about my own work, I would write about writing sentences.

INTERVIEWER

Do you teach any creative-writing courses?

GASS

I resent spending a lot of time on lousy stuff. If somebody is reading a bad paper in a seminar, it is nevertheless on Plato, and it is Plato we can talk about. Whereas if somebody is writing about their hunting trip—well—where can one go for salvation or relief? Creative-writing teachers, poor souls, must immerse themselves in slop and even take it seriously. Since I can’t bear it, resent it, I shouldn’t teach it. It is probably impossible to teach anyone to be a good writer. You can teach people how to read, possibly.

I am also aware of how little I can tolerate other people telling me how to write. So why should I do it to my students? I do not invite or accept this sort of personal criticism. I usually have poor-to-absent relations with editors because they have a habit of desiring changes and I resist changes. So why should I tell students to make changes? I also remember how bad I was. I wrote far worse stuff than I see from students. What can I fairly say to them?

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said no decent sentence could come from a half-formed man.

GASS

I said that? I shouldn’t have. Most writers are probably quarter-formed. Hopeless and helpless. One’s complete sentences are attempts, as often as not, to complete an incomplete self with words. If you were a fully realized person—whatever the hell that would be—you wouldn’t fool around writing books.

 

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton