Interviews

Nelson Algren, The Art of Fiction No. 11

Interviewed by Alston Anderson & Terry Southern

The interview took place in a dark and untidy Greenwich Village walk-up flat in the fall of 1955. A number of visitors dropped in to listen to Algren. Word had spread that he was giving an interview, and in that quarter of the city Algren is highly respected.

He makes his living writing, has no set routine for working at it, nor seriously feels the need of one; he finds that he works best, or most frequently, at night, and he composes on the typewriter. He strikes one as a man who feels and means just what he says, and often says it in the same way he dresses—with a good-humored nonchalance that is at once uniquely American and, in the latter-day sense, quite un-American: his tie, if he ever wore one, would very likely be as askew as his syntax often is. He is a man who betrays no inclination whatsoever towards politeness, but he has a natural generosity and compassion. To talk with Algren is to have a conversation brought very quickly to that rarefied level where values are actually declared.

 

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any trouble getting The Man with the Golden Arm published?

NELSON ALGREN

No, no. Nothing was easier, because I got paid before I wrote it. It got a very lucky deal because they had an awful lot of money, the publishers did, during the war. Doubleday had a big backlog. I was working for Harper’s—that is, I’d done one novel. Under the way they operate—well, it’s a very literary house; I mean, they’d give you, oh, maybe a five-hundred-dollar advance and then you’re on your own. And then if the book goes on two years—well, but I mean, you take the risk. They pay in literary prestige, they have an editor who once edited something by Thomas Wolfe or something; they figure that way. And I didn’t see it, just didn’t know what the score was, you see. So a guy from Doubleday came along, and I said what I wanted was enough to live on by the week for a year. And he said, “what do you call enough to live on?” and I said, “Fifty dollars,” which seemed like a lot to me then—and he said, “Well, how about sixty dollars for two years?” He raised it himself, see; I mean, they were author-stealing, of course, and ah—well, I had a very bad contract at Harper’s anyhow. So they gave me that sixty-a-week deal for two years, which was very generous then, and—I told them I was going to write a war novel. But it turned out to be this Golden Arm thing. I mean, the war kind of slipped away, and these people with the hypos came along—and that was it. But they had so much money it was fantastic. It’s very hard to get out of the habit of thinking you’re going to kill them if you ask for fifty a week.

INTERVIEWER

Which of your books sold the most?

ALGREN

That was the only book that sold. The others never sold much except in paperbacks.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of The Man with the Golden Arm as being very autobiographical?

ALGREN

Oh, to some extent I drew on some people I knew in a half way. I made some people up and ah . . . the “Dealer” was . . . sort of a mixture; I got two, I dunno, two, three guys in mind. I know a couple guys around there. I knew one guy especially had a lot of those characteristics, but it’s never clearly one person.

INTERVIEWER

Well, anyway, you do think of some one person who could have started you thinking about Frankie Machine, since, apparently, you had at first planned an entirely different book.

ALGREN

The only connection I can make is . . . well, I was thinking about a war novel, and I had a buddy—little Italian bookie—pretty good dice-shooter, and he always used that phrase. We’d go partners—he’s a fairly good crap-shooter—I mean, he’s always good for about three passes. And then I’d say, “Pick it up, Joe, pick it up,” and he’d say, “Don’t worry, gotta golden arm.” Then he’d come out with a crap. He never picked it up at all— but that’s where I got that title. That was a guy I knew in the Army. It has no connection, it just happened to fit in later.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think you arrived at it thematically —rather than a war novel?

ALGREN

Well, if you’re going to write a war novel, you have to do it while you’re in the war. If you don’t do the thing while you’re there—at least the way I operate—you can’t do it. It slips away. Two months after the war it was gone; but I was living in a living situation, and . . . I find it pretty hard to write on anything in the past . . . and this thing just got more real; I mean, the neighborhood I was living in, and these people, were a lot more real than the Army was.

INTERVIEWER

What was the neighborhood you were living in?

ALGREN

Near Division Street.

INTERVIEWER

Was this one of those books that “wrote itself”?

ALGREN

No. No, it didn’t write itself. But I didn’t have to contrive it. I mean, the situation hits you and you react to it, that’s all.

INTERVIEWER

Did it occur to you that this might be an unusual treatment of tragedy, using a protagonist like Frankie Machine?

ALGREN

No, I didn’t think of it that way at all. I didn’t think of it essentially as a tragedy. I was just going along with that situation, and—well, I’d already written the book; I mean, I’d spent almost two years on the book before I ever ran into a drug addict. I wasn’t acquainted with that situation at all. I had the book written about a card-dealer, but there wasn’t any dope angle at all. It crossed my mind once or twice that that would be dramatic as hell, but I didn’t know anything about it. I thought it would be better to lay off if you don’t know, and I didn’t see how you’d go about finding out about something like that deliberately, so I dropped it. Somehow I didn’t fit it in. You see, I’d sent the book to the agent, and the agent said she liked it and all that, but it needed a peg, it didn’t seem to be hung on anything. But it’s real curious when I think of it now how obvious a thing is you don’t see it. I mean, I was thinking about what to hang this book on, and I was hanging with these guys by that time. Well, one of these guys is a guy I know a long time—a guy done a lot of time, just a Polish guy used to drink a lot, that’s all—and he said, “Let’s go out for a beer,” so we go down on Madison Street. And it was late, I remember it was about two in the morning and I wanted to get in—it was raining—and he said, “Well, I just live across the street,” so we ducked, you know, through doors, up, around, up—and first thing I see this guy standing behind the curtain, I see his arm swinging, but I was so full of beer I didn’t make anything too clear about it. It didn’t dawn on me then, but it bothered me that somebody should be there swinging his arm up and down, you know, and somebody said, “Jack is having trouble,” or something like that.

I was sort of bothered—I didn’t quite know—and then a bunch of them come over, and I had a hell of a time putting that situation together. I didn’t get it; they would come in and out with little cigar boxes under their arms, and a guy would say to me, “We’re just having breakfast, would you like some breakfast?” and I’d say, “No, I guess I had breakfast.” So he said, “You want to see how it’s done?” I said, “Hell no, I don’t want to see how it’s done.” I felt—well, I have an aversion to needles, anyway; I had it in the Army—but I felt, you know, if you want to do it, that’s your business. I mean, if a guy goes into the can with a cigar box under his arm, I don’t want no part of that, I don’t want to see it.

Well, then I see that Jack is on junk, but he says with him it don’t make any difference, he can knock it off any time, you know? Just happens to be one of these guys it don’t get the better of. So I said, “Well, he’s lucky, I guess he knows what he’s doing.” Well, I’d go over there. I’d stop and buy, you know, a few bottles of beer or something like that—I mean there was never anything to eat or drink in the joint. That bothered me—maybe one can of beans on the shelf—people that don’t eat and don’t drink. So I’d bring up half a dozen bottles of beer or something, and nobody’d want a beer. I didn’t get it. There’d never be anything to eat, so I’d say, “Let’s go down and get something to eat.” So a girl comes down with me, and I was going to the butcher shop—get some meat and potatoes—she went to the bakery and got chocolate rolls, sweet rolls, rolls with sugar on them. I say, “Jesus, that’s dessert.” I said, “What the hell, don’t you people eat?” And she just says, “Got a sweet tooth.”

Well, it got plain enough. Sometimes it made me mad—I always thought I was getting fooled, see. I mean, these guys would come on with, “Lemme have a—” you know, hit you for a few bucks, try you out, and I’d come up; I was a fairly good mark, not too good a mark. So this one guy says, “You know what I do. Sure I hit it a little for kicks, but when it starts getting the better of me, that’s all.” You know the kind of guy, just naturally strong. I mean, I believed him. Then his wife calls up: “Jack is sick.” So I said, “Why don’t you get a doctor?” And she said, “Well, he can’t exactly get a doctor,” and, “Why don’t they come by and get you in a cab because he wants his own doctor”—or something. So two of these goofs come by in a cab and we go up north, in a hotel, out, got nine bucks, up and down, around a corner, ducking up and down, then back to Jack, and poor son of a bitch, he come out and he was bawling. This was the strong guy—he was crying and just pouring sweat. I guess he lost about fifteen pounds that day. He came out with a real sheepish look, like “Well, you know, it happens to everybody.” So I felt a little contemptuous of him. Then these other people had come in, and I had different reactions with one or two of them, like this one guy I used in—well, he wasn’t Frankie Machine, but when I think of him I think of this guy. He had a pushed-in kind of mug. I felt much more sympathetic toward him because—see, Jack was on it, but he was for it, too; I mean, he really wanted it to be that way—but this guy was on it, but he didn’t want to be. He was against it. There was a girl there, too, who was like that, never should’ve been on it. So the swindle got faster and faster. I had an ideal place for them to come up and fix, so I didn’t think anything of it. They’d just come up and fix, and that was it. I got along with them pretty good—but it took me a remarkably long time to make any connection between that and the book. I didn’t want to go over to their place because it took time from the book; I felt I shouldn’t have been goofing off like that. But I enjoyed going over there. We’d sit around and they’d always have music; they didn’t always go right for the needle, you know, a lot of times they didn’t have it. Then I began to feel very dimly that maybe there was something usable there. I thought about it very—timidly, and finally I said to the agent, “You think that, uh—do you think it’s too sensational?” She said, “No, use it.” She insisted that I use it, so I hung it on there; I hung it on there without really knowing a great deal about it. It was an afterthought. I got the mood of the thing, but I didn’t have much time to, you know, do it thoroughly. I know a little bit more about it now, but what I learned, I learned after the book came out.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever feel that you should try heroin, in connection with writing a book about users?

ALGREN

No. No, I think you can do a thing like that best from a detached position.

INTERVIEWER

Were you ever put down by any of these people as an eavesdropper?

ALGREN

No, they were mostly amused by it. Oh, they thought it was a pretty funny way to make a living, but—well, one time, after the book came out, I was sitting in this place, and there were a couple of junkies sitting there, and this one guy was real proud of the book; he was trying to get this other guy to read it, and finally the other guy said he had read it, but he said, “You know it ain’t so, it ain’t like that.” There’s a part in the book where this guy takes a shot, and then he’s talking for about four pages. This guy says, “You know it ain’t like that, a guy takes a fix and he goes on the nod, I mean, you know that.” And the other guy says, “Well, on the other hand, if he really knew what he was talking about, he couldn’t write the book, he’d be out in the can.” So the other guy says, “Well, if you mean, is it all right for squares, sure, it’s all right for squares.” So, I mean, you have to compromise. But the book was somehow incidental to my relationship with them, inasmuch as they always had some hassle going on, and—well, this needle thing wasn’t always up front, you know. I mean, these were people you just went to hear a band with. It was only now and then it’d come to you—like it might suddenly occur to you that one of your friends is crippled or something—it would come to you that the guy’s on stuff. But it didn’t stay with you very much.

INTERVIEWER

Were you conscious of having a model for Zosh?

ALGREN

No, no, I think that was kind of an invented thing. One of those things you pick up in the papers—sometimes there’s a story about a woman chasing the old man around with a mattress-board all night—that sort of thing. I get a lot of things from the papers.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever plot a thing out mechanically?

ALGREN

I did it with this last book, A Walk on the Wild Side, but that was the first time I tried it. Up to now, I’d just go along with the story and then sort of prop it up—plots that don’t really stand up, but now in this last one . . . Whether the book itself stands up as a literary thing I don’t know—but I was surprised when I went through it that I’d contrived better because the plot dovetailed and that was the first time I was able to do that. This Golden Arm thing is really very creaky as far as plot goes, it’s more of a cowboy-and-Indian thing, a cops-and-robbers thing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write in drafts?

ALGREN

Yes, but each draft gets a little longer. I don’t try to write the whole thing in one draft.

INTERVIEWER

How much do you usually write before you begin to rewrite?

ALGREN

Very little, I dunno, maybe five pages. I’ve always figured the only way I could finish a book and get a plot was just to keep making it longer and longer until something happens—you know, until it finds its own plot—because you can’t outline and then fit the thing into it. I suppose it’s a slow way of working.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of any particular writers as having influenced your style, or approach?

ALGREN

Well, I used to like Stephen Crane a lot and, it goes without saying, Dostoyevsky—that’s the only Russian I’ve ever reread. No, that ain’t all, there’s Kuprin.

INTERVIEWER

How about American writers?

ALGREN

Well, Hemingway is pretty hard not to write like.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you write like that?

ALGREN

No, but you get the feeling from it—the feeling of economy.

INTERVIEWER

How about Farrell?

ALGREN

Well, I don’t feel he’s a good writer. Since Studs Lonigan, I don’t know of anything of his that’s new or fresh or well-written. Frankly, I just don’t see him. I missed Farrell, let’s put it that way.

INTERVIEWER

Some of the reviews have linked you and Farrell.

ALGREN

I don’t think he’s a writer, really. He’s too journalistic for my taste. I don’t get anything besides a social study, and not always well-told, either. He has the same lack that much lesser known writers have. He hits me the same way as, say . . . a guy like Hal Ellson. Do you know him? Well, he’s a New York writer who does this gang stuff. He’s written some very good books, but they’re just straight case studies, you know what I mean?

INTERVIEWER

How about Horace McCoy?

ALGREN

No, no. I didn’t mean to put Farrell down there. No, Farrell, I think, is a real earnest guy—but I mention this Ellson because Ellson does the same thing. But, I mean, there’s something awfully big left out. It isn’t enough to do just a case study, something stenographic. Farrell is stenographic, and he isn’t even a real good stenographer. He’s too sloppy. In his essays he compares himself with Dreiser, but I don’t think he’s in Dreiser’s league. He’s as bad a writer as Dreiser—but he doesn’t have the compassion that makes Dreiser’s bad writing important.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a feeling of camaraderie, or solidarity, with any contemporary writers?

ALGREN

No, I couldn’t say so. I don’t know many writers.

INTERVIEWER

How do you avoid it?

ALGREN

Well, I dunno, but I do have the feeling that other writers can’t help you with writing. I’ve gone to writers’ conferences and writers’ sessions and writers’ clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I’m sure it’s the wrong direction. It isn’t the place where you learn to write. I’ve always felt strongly that a writer shouldn’t be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t Simone de Beauvoir dedicate a book to you?

ALGREN

Yeah, I showed her around Chicago. I showed her the electric chair and everything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you vote? Locally, there around Gary?

ALGREN

No. No, I don’t.

INTERVIEWER

Still you do frequently get involved in these issues, like the Rosenbergs, and so on.

ALGREN

Yes, that’s true.

INTERVIEWER

What do your publishers think of that?

ALGREN

Well, they don’t exactly give me any medals for caution.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s been any sort of tradition of isolation of the writer in America, as compared to Europe?

ALGREN

We don’t have any tradition at all that I know of. I don’t think the isolation of the American writer is a tradition; it’s more that geographically he just is isolated, unless he happens to live in New York City. But I don’t suppose there’s a small town around the country that doesn’t have a writer. The thing is that here you get to be a writer differently. I mean, a writer like Sartre decides, like any professional man, when he’s fifteen, sixteen years old, that instead of being a doctor he’s going to be a writer. And he absorbs the French tradition and proceeds from there. Well, here you get to be a writer when there’s absolutely nothing else you can do. I mean, I don’t know of any writers here who just started out to be writers, and then became writers. They just happen to fall into it.

INTERVIEWER

How did you fall into it?

ALGREN

Well, I fell into it when I got out of a school of journalism in ‘31 in the middle of the depression. I had a little card that entitled me to a job because I’d gone to this school of journalism, you see. I was just supposed to present this card to the editor. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a sports columnist, a foreign correspondent, or what; I was willing to take what was open. Only, of course, it wasn’t. Things were pretty tight. Small towns would send you to big cities, and big cities would send you to small towns; it was a big hitchhiking time, so I wound up in New Orleans selling coffee—one of these door-to-door deals —and one of the guys on this crew said we ought to get out of there because he had a packing shed in the Rio Grande Valley. So we bummed down to the Rio Grande. Well, he didn’t have a packing shed, he knew somebody who had one—one of those things, you know—but what he did do, he promoted a Sinclair gasoline station down there. It was a farce, of course, it was an abandoned station in the middle of nowhere; I mean, there was no chance of selling gas or anything like that, but I suppose it looked good for the Sinclair agent to write up to Dallas and say he had a couple guys rehabilitating the place. There was nothing to the station, it didn’t even have any windows. But we had to dig pits for the gas, and then one day the Sinclair guy comes up with a hundred gallons of gas and wanted somebody to take legal responsibility for it. So my partner hands me the pencil and says, “Well, you can write better than I can, you been to school,” and I was sort of proud of that, so I signed for it.

Then my partner had the idea that I should stay there and take care of the station, just keep up a front, you know, in case the Sinclair guy came around, and he’d go out—he had an old Studebaker—and buy up produce from the Mexican farmers very cheap, and bring it back and we’d sell it at the station—turn the station into a produce stand. I mean, we were so far out on this highway that the agent couldn’t really check on us—we were way out; there were deer and wild hogs and everything out there—and in three weeks we’d be rich. That was his idea. But the only thing he brought back was black-eyed peas. He paid about two dollars for a load of black-eyed peas—well, that was like buying a load of cactus—but he wouldn’t admit he’d make a mistake. So, he went around to the big Piggly-Wiggly store and they said they’d take some of the peas if they were shelled. So he set me to shelling the peas. I shelled those damn peas till I was nearly blind. In the meantime, he’d left town, out to promote something else.

Then one day he showed up with another guy, in a much better-looking car—he’d left the old Studebaker there at the station— and I saw them out there by the pit fooling around with some sort of contraption, but it didn’t dawn on me, and then it turned out they were siphoning the gas into this guy’s car. Well, they left town before I knew what was happening. When I caught on I was being swindled, of course, I was very indignant about it, and I wrote letters that took in the whole South. I gave the whole Confederacy hell. Oh, it was nowhere, just nowhere, nowhere. So I wrote a couple letters like that—and I was very serious at the time, and some of that got into the letters. Ultimately, I got out of there. I poured a lot of water into the empty tank, but I felt like a fugitive because I didn’t account to the Sinclair guy. It was a terrible farce, but later when I got home—I don’t know how much later—I read the letters again, and there was a story in them, all right. So I rewrote it and Story Magazine published it, and I was off. But that’s what I mean by “falling into it.” Because I was really trying to become a big oil man.

INTERVIEWER

Have you consciously tried to develop a style?

ALGREN

Well, I haven’t consciously tried to develop it. The only thing I’ve consciously tried to do was put myself in a position to hear the people I wanted to hear talk talk. I used the police lineup for I don’t know how many years. But that was accidental too, like that junky deal—you don’t exactly seek it out, you’re there and it dawns on you. I got a newspaper man to loan me his card, but that was only good for one night. But then I finally got rolled. I didn’t get myself deliberately rolled; I was just over on the South Side and got rolled. But they gave me a card, you know, to look for the guys in the lineup, and I used that card for something like seven years. They finally stopped me—the card got ragged as hell, pasted here and there, you couldn’t read it— the detective at the door stopped me and said, “What happened, you mean you’re still looking for the guy?” This was like seven years later, and I said, “Hell yes, I lost fourteen dollars,” so he let me go ahead.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think, then, that you’re more interested in idiom than in idea? And isn’t that generally characteristic of American writers?

ALGREN

That’s cutting it pretty close, all right. I think of a tragic example: Dick Wright. I think he made . . . a very bad mistake. I mean, he writes out of passion, out of his belly; but he won’t admit this, you see. He’s trying to write as an intellectual, which he isn’t basically; but he’s trying his best to write like a Frenchman. Of course, it isn’t strictly an American-European distinction, the belly and the head; you find the same distinction here. A book like Ralph Ellison’s, for example, or Peter Matthiessen’s, stays better with me than the opposite thing, a book like Saul Bellow’s. Bellow’s is a book done with great skill and great control, but there isn’t much fire. I depend more on the stomach. I always think of writing as a physical thing. I’m not trying to generalize, it just happens to be that way with me.

INTERVIEWER

Can you relate The Man with the Golden Arm to an idea?

ALGREN

No, unless a feeling can be an idea. I just had an overall feeling, I didn’t have any particular theory about what I ought to do. Living in a very dense area, you’re conscious of how the people underneath live, and you have a certain feeling toward them—so much so that you’d rather live among them than with the business classes. In a historical sense, it might be related to an idea, but you write out of—well, I wouldn’t call it indignation, but a kind of irritability that these people on top should be so contented, so absolutely unaware of these other people, and so sure that their values are the right ones. I mean, there’s a certain satisfaction in recording the people underneath, whose values are as sound as theirs, and a lot funnier, and a lot truer in a way. There’s a certain overall satisfaction in kind of scooping up a shovelful of these people and dumping them in somebody’s parlor.

INTERVIEWER

Were you trying to dramatize a social problem?

ALGREN

Well, there’s always something wrong in any society. I think it would be a mistake to aim at any solution, you know; I mean, the most you can do is—well, if any writer can catch the routine lives of people just living in that kind of ring of fire to show how you can’t go out of a certain neighborhood if you’re addicted, or for other reasons, that you can’t be legitimate, but that within the limitation you can succeed in making a life that is routine—with human values that seem to be a little more real, a little more intense, and human, than with people who are freer to come and go—if somebody could write a book about the routine of these circumscribed people, just their everyday life, without any big scenes, without any violence, or cops breaking in, and so on, just day-to-day life—like maybe the woman is hustling and makes a few bucks, and they get a little H just to keep from getting sick, and go to bed, and get up—just an absolutely prosaic life without any particular drama to it in their eyes—if you could just do that straight, without anybody getting arrested—there’s always a little danger of that, of course—but to have it just the way these thousands of people live, very quiet, commonplace routine . . . well, you’d have an awfully good book.

INTERVIEWER

On the point of style again, you seem to favor phrases, almost more than sentences.

ALGREN

I always thought my sentences were pretty good. But I do depend on phrases quite a bit.

INTERVIEWER

Do you try to write a poetic prose?

ALGREN

No. No, I’m not writing it, but so many people say things poetically, they say it for you in a way you never could. Some guy just coming out of jail might say, “I did it from bell to bell,” or like the seventeen-year-old junkie, when the judge asked him what he did all day, he said, “Well, I find myself a doorway to lean against, and I take a fix, and then I lean, I just lean and dream.” They always say things like that.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of Faulkner?

ALGREN

Well, I can get lost in him awful easy. But he’s powerful.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting that Hemingway once said that Faulkner and you were the two best writers in America.

ALGREN

Yeah, I remember when he said that. He said, “After Faulkner . . .” I was very hurt.

INTERVIEWER

You said that the plot of The Man with the Golden Arm was “creaky.” How much emphasis are you going to put on plot in your future writing?

ALGREN

Well, you have to prop the book up somehow. You’ve got to frame it, or otherwise it becomes just a series of episodes.

INTERVIEWER

You gave more attention to plot in this book you’ve just finished.

ALGREN

This one I plotted a great deal more than any other. In the first place because it’s more of a contrived book. I’m trying to write a reader’s book, more than my own book. When you’re writing your own book, you don’t have to plot; it’s just when you write for the reader. And since I’m dealing with the past, the thirties, I have to contrive, whereas, with a living situation, I wouldn’t have to.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that this one came off as well as The Man with the Golden Arm?

ALGREN

Mechanically and, I think, technically, it’s done more carefully, and probably reads better than previous books.

INTERVIEWER

You make this distinction between a “reader’s book” and a book for yourself. What do you think the difference is?

ALGREN

It’s the difference between writing by yourself and writing on a stage. I mean, if the book were your own, you’d be satisfied just to have the guy walk down the sidewalk and fall on his head. In a reader’s book, you’d have him turn a double somersault. You’re more inclined to clown, I think, in a reader’s book. You’ve got one ear to the audience for yaks. It’s just an obligation you have to fulfill.

INTERVIEWER

Obligation to whom?

ALGREN

Well, you’re talking economics now. I mean, the way I’ve operated with publishers is that I live on the future. I take as much money as I can get for as long as I can get it, you know, a year or two years, and by the end of that time your credit begins to have holes in it, and—well, you have to come up. After all, they’re businessmen. Of course, you can get diverted from a book you want to write. I’ve got a book about Chicago on the West Side—I did a hundred pages in a year, and I still figure I need three years on it—but I was under contract for this other one, so it took precedence. I didn’t want to contract for the first one, because I just wanted to go along as far as I could on it without having any pressure on me. The one I contracted for is the one I finished, and now I’m going back to the one I want to do.

INTERVIEWER

Did you enjoy writing The Man with the Golden Arm more than you did this last one?

ALGREN

Well, it seemed more important. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it more, because in a way this was a much easier book to do. The lumber is all cut for you. The timber and the dimensions are all there, you know you’re going to write a four-hundred-page book; and in that way your problems are solved, you’re limited. Whereas, with a book like that Man with the Golden Arm, you cut your own timber, and you don’t know where you’re building, you don’t have any plan or anything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find that you take more care with a thing like that?

ALGREN

No, I always take great care. I think I’m very careful, maybe too careful. You can get too fussy. I do find myself getting bogged down wondering whether I should use a colon or a semicolon, and so on, and I keep trying each one out. I guess you can overdo that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that writing a book out of economic obligation could affect your other work?

ALGREN

No, it won’t have anything to do with that at all. One is a matter of living and reacting from day to day, whereas the book I just finished could be written anywhere there’s a typewriter.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your writing improves?

ALGREN

I think technically it does. I reread my first book, and found it—oh, you know, “poetic,” in the worst sense.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that any critics have influenced your work?

ALGREN

None could have, because I don’t read them. I doubt anyone does, except other critics. It seems like a sealed-off field with its own lieutenants, pretty much preoccupied with its own intrigues. I got a glimpse into the uses of a certain kind of criticism this past summer at a writers’ conference—into how the avocation of assessing the failures of better men can be turned into a comfortable livelihood, providing you back it up with a Ph.D. I saw how it was possible to gain a chair of literature on no qualification other than persistence in nipping the heels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. I know, of course, that there are true critics, one or two. For the rest all I can say is, “Deal around me.”

INTERVIEWER

How about this movie, The Man with the Golden Arm?

ALGREN

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have anything to do with the script?

ALGREN

No. No, I didn’t last long. I went out there for a thousand a week, and I worked Monday, and I got fired Wednesday. The guy that hired me was out of town Tuesday.