Interviews

Gordon Lish, The Art of Editing No. 2

Interviewed by Christian Lorentzen


Outside the Esquire offices, in New York, ca. 1970. Photo by Bud Lee.

It’s the custom for editors to keep a low profile and to underplay any changes they may make to an author’s manuscript. Gordon Lish is a different animal. Not since Maxwell Perkins has an editor been so famous—or notorious—as a sculptor of other people’s prose. As fiction editor of Esquire from 1969 to 1977, then as an editor at Knopf and of The Quarterly until 1995, Lish worked closely with many of the most daring writers of the past fifty years, including Harold Brodkey, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, and Joy Williams. In an interview with this magazine in 2004, Hannah said, “Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right.” 

His collaborations have not always ended ami­cably. His editorial relationship with Carver ceased ­after three books. When Lish donated his papers to the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington, they indeed showed that he had drastically cut, and often rewritten, some of Carver’s best loved stories. For the Collected Stories, published in 2009, Carver’s widow printed some of them in both edited and unedited versions. The critical reaction was divided. In the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King described the ­effect on one ­story as “a total ­rewrite . . . a cheat”; in The New York Review of Books, Giles Harvey wrote that the publication of Carver’s ­unedited stories “has not done Carver any favors. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish.” 

More than a dozen books have appeared under Lish’s own name—­including the novels Dear Mr. Capote (1983), Peru (1986), and Zimzum (1993). These have won Lish a small but passionate cult following as a writer of recursive and often very funny prose. For decades he taught legendary classes in fiction, both at institutions such as Yale and Columbia and in private sessions in New York and across America. Though he titled one of his books Arcade, or, How to Write a Novel (1999), he, like Socrates, never put his teachings on paper. They ­survive in his students, many of whom are now prominent writers and teachers of fiction, among them Christine Schutt, Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz, and Ben Marcus. 

Lish was born in 1934 in Hewlett, New York, the son of a hat manu­facturer and a housewife. In early childhood he was afflicted with acute ­psoriasis, a condition that has persisted all his life. After being kicked out of Andover, he spent the rest of his teens and twenties working in radio and at odd jobs in New York; Pampa, Texas; and Tucson, where he eventually ­received a B.A. from the University of Arizona. Even now he has retained the smooth baritone and cultured vowels of a 1950s disc jockey. After his first marriage, to Frances Fokes, ended in divorce, he married Barbara Works; he lives in the Upper East Side apartment that he shared with his second wife until her death from ALS in 1994. The interview was conducted in his living room, over several long sessions that began in the spring of 2010 and ended last September. Often we would be interrupted by phone calls from Lish’s friends and former students, some of them seeking advice on the finishing stages of their books. He was a convivial host, offering his interviewer bottles of beer and a large brass pot for use as an ashtray. 

Christian Lorentzen

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a writer or an editor? 

LISH

I’m not a writer. I’ve no stake in my being thought a writer. Yet if I do write, I want it to be as exacting as I can make it. I want whatever I doodle to be well doodled. Most of the writing I’ve done has been under other names, as a ghostwriter, to maintain my family. Or else by writing potboilers. Not that such endeavors could necessarily be told apart.

INTERVIEWER

For example?

LISH

The only one I admit to is called Coming Out of the Ice, which Harcourt, I think it was, published in 1979. It concerns Victor Herman, who, in his teens, was taken to Russia by his communist family—this in the thirties. After a while, the mother and children wanted to come back to the States. Victor’s father had collected his family’s passports and Victor and his siblings were stuck in Russia. He went on to achieve fame as the Lindbergh of Russia by his having parachuted from an airplane at a record height—an altitude greater than theretofore had been jumped from—and come down chewing on an apple, a rather sporty feat that caught the attention of the American press. He thereafter spent seventeen years in the gulags. Herman was repatriated during Ford’s term, Kissinger having intervened. Harcourt had a contract with him for his story, and I was called in and I checked with Bill Buckley, asking who could tell me if the guy was kosher. Buckley phoned so-and-so, and she said, Doesn’t look right to me. I agreed to do the work anyway, desperate to make the fee. It was sixty thousand dollars. I went out to Detroit to interview Victor maybe six weekends. Herman was a man in his sixties, and he seemed to relish the bitter cold while he was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt. It was as though his having lived in Siberia, seventy-five degrees below zero, had conditioned him for such weather. I can sit from seven in the morning to seven at night without urinating. Victor seemed ­eager to prove he could do the same. We sat in a motel room, Victor declining a break. That was also impressive. In the end, I had to make up a lot of the book because Victor’s account was, to my mind, preposterous. I made up a character I called Red, a Finn, who proved critical in seeing to Victor’s survival, teaching him, for example, how, for food, to trap rats in the latrine. About three years after I finished the book—Victor didn’t live long after this—Victor phoned me to say, You’re not gonna believe it, you’re not gonna believe it! Red has turned up!

INTERVIEWER

Before you were a ghostwriter or an editor, you were in radio.

LISH

I auditioned to be an announcer at NBC when I was about sixteen. I was given an audition by Pat Kelly, then chief of announcers. He went along with me in great kindness. My aim was ridiculous. I had been thrown out of Andover. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you get kicked out of Andover?

LISH

Fighting, fighting. Some fellow, or fellows, called me a dirty Jew, and I was a fighter. A small, a little, fighter. Kelly said, We don’t take people who haven’t been to college. I said, I’m not going to college. He said, Well, go out to the lobby and look in the back of Broadcasting Magazine for a want ad and find someplace as far from New York as you can. I saw an ad for Pampa, Texas, and thought, That’s around where California is, so isn’t that far away enough? I went to my father’s office and after a couple of phone calls, I was hired that day and flew out to Pampa, after having first gone to J. Press to dress myself accordingly, figuring I was quite the fellow now. Nothing could have been sillier.

INTERVIEWER

So you got the job?

LISH

I did. And stayed and stayed, and then, owing to my skin, had to come back to New York. It was then that I was put on ACTH for pretty terrible psoriasis. ACTH prefigured cortisone, so far as I know, and hydrocortisone. It saved my bacon. A couple of injections and I was on the way to what I had never before seen—clear skin. I also ended up in the bughouse in White Plains, possibly as the result of the steroid therapy. Something similar ­became the subject of a New Yorker article and a movie called Bigger Than Life. James Mason was in it as a schoolteacher given cortisone for some disorder and who then winds up quite wacked out. But then, as I aged, I think I preferred thinking I had been authentically psychotic and that the ACTH was merely coincidental. I suppose I wanted to be as crazy as the next one. Maybe crazier. After eight months in the mental place, I was given ACTH again. It was then that I got jobs on radio in New Haven and here in New York. I was a disc jockey, first at a restaurant called Johnny Johnston’s Charcoal Room on Forty-Fifth and Second—this in the fifties. Thereafter, I was moved to the studio out in Livingston, New Jersey, and broadcast from twelve till two in the morning, trying to mimic Jean Shepherd, who was, by my lights, the most interesting person on radio. He would improvise thoroughly charming tales. I found his work riveting, simply riveting. Then he went into television and that didn’t pan out for him, couldn’t quite ­effect the magic he enacted so ingeniously on radio. I tried to copy Shepherd’s manner, but failed utterly. Passed out one night—it turned out by reason of my having developed hypokalemia owing to the ACTH. So then
I was taken out to Tucson as an invalid. Was told I had to live there for the sun and aridity. I was nineteen and I was informed I had to remain in Tucson and keep myself out of doors as much as could be managed. I worked as a wrangler at a dude ranch for a while, and then sought a job in radio. A woman I’d seen on local TV interviewed me, and I was hired to do wake-up radio for the NBC affiliate. I married the woman but never showed up for the job. That’s Frances—Frances Fokes. She had done very well at Wellesley. That was our form of contact. My father had wanted my sister to attend Wellesley, but she did not, and he was heartbroken by this. So here it was, a kind of supplemental gesture on my part—I’ll furnish you a daughter-in-law who’s gone to Wellesley. The marriage lasted eight or nine years and produced three children, Jennifer, Rebecca, and Ethan. We lived on chicken backs and beans. Frances had a program of her own, an interview show around noon, and she was also a salesperson at the station. But I, having notions that married women should properly be supported, encouraged her to quit and for us to rely on what I could make as a door-to-door health-insurance salesman—this, it later became clear, for what was not an entirely legitimate outfit.

INTERVIEWER

Were you successful?

LISH

I was, until I panicked and sent a certified letter to the company indicating that I had become aware of practices that were not in keeping with propriety and that I was resigning. I was scared to death I would be sent to jail. I was being driven around by two guys in a pink, radically tail-finned Plymouth. We would raid the impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of Tucson, signing up anybody in sight and pocketing all of the first premium—premiums which had to be paid in cash. We’d save a dollar to send to the company and keep the rest. There was, I suppose, no evidence of there being any company.

INTERVIEWER

Did it ever make it back to you when these people made claims?

 

LISH

I was long gone in no time at all. I got out of there and got on the road. I had been smitten with Kerouac, as I had been with Salinger, and had taken it all in without any sense that this indeed was fiction. I ate it up, and wanted to place myself among, or between, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. Truly.

INTERVIEWER

So you went to California and found Neal Cassady?

LISH

I became good buddies with Cassady for about four years. Never met Kerouac. At one point, Cassady had batches of letters from John Clellon Holmes and William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac that he ­wanted to sell. One was a lot of twelve and another a lot of thirteen. I sold them for a total of twenty-five hundred dollars to Andreas Brown, the fellow who ended up owning Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart.

Cassady was always trying to get some money together for a gift for Carolyn, for an anniversary, say. They were married twice—therefore, two anniversaries. Ran into Neal for the last time. Barbara and I were traveling in Mexico. My second wife and I, that is. I was in search of a psoriasis cure rumored to be had in Chihuahua and had money from A Man’s Work, a series of interview recordings I’d done for McGraw-Hill. We were seated in probably the one place in town on the main drag where people would gather to have a Coke, and Cassady came rolling along with George Walker, who was one of the Kesey retinue, one of the crew on the bus. Barbara liked Cassady, which seemed to me highly unlikely, ­because Barbara absolutely did not approve of Kesey. I had severed relations with all of that number while I was going through the divorce from Frances, thinking that it had gotten me in trouble when teaching and it would certainly do ditto when the case came to court. Barbara and I went off with Cassady to some party, and at about four in the morning, I can recall Neal and I were standing around in a driveway, and Cassady was asking, Can you take me back with you to the States because Carolyn and I are having an anniversary? I couldn’t quite imagine risking crossing the border with Neal in the car, and said, Well, we’re going on to Chihuahua, whereas I would have routinely agreed, To hell with Chihuahua, I’ll drive you back to Los Gatos. But I chickened out. Have ever after been ashamed of myself for my having let a beloved friend down. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you meet Ken Kesey?

LISH

Through his old wrestling coach, or English teacher, at Oregon, Philip Temko. We wrestled, Ken and I, out in front of a shack he had on Perry Lane, hard by Stanford, where he was a Stegner Fellow. Frances and I had a little bungalow on Concord Way in Burlingame and fell in with Ken through Temko and my search for Allan Temko, a writer I wanted to attract to the Chrysalis Review, a lit mag I was mounting at the time. So first I meet Kesey in San Jose at a romp Philip Temko was throwing. Met Neal there that night, too. Later on Kesey and I wrestled. He slaughtered me. This seemed to promote a friendship. Too, he was working on Cuckoo’s Nest, so there was the bughouse connection. Indeed, I was incarcerated twice—for two weeks in Florida and, later, for eight months up in White Plains. I could spend forever telling you tales about Kesey and Cassady. At the time I fell all over myself in devotion to Kesey’s writing. Yeah, I loved Kesey and his work. I loved the shit out of him, an utterly alive fellow, as was Cassady. But Cassady was gentle and dear and sensitive and kind. Kesey was anything but. He could be a pretty trying fellow and we became increasingly less palsy. There were all the kids he collected around his place in La Honda, that claque, and by the time Tom Wolfe turned up on the scene, I was plenty absent from it. Went up to Victoria, Canada, then to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then on to New York. I wouldn’t go along on either of the bus trips. Didn’t want to surrender myself to that prankstering bit, had Frances, the children, and a job I was going, presently, not to have. Ken kept saying, Come on, come on, come on, if you want to be my friend, come on, but I wouldn’t go. Yes, we had remarkable times. He died too young. I miss him all the time. Can’t say I didn’t love Ken, but with Neal the affection was far less troubled. No, no trouble at all.

INTERVIEWER

How did you become the fiction editor of Esquire?

LISH

I was headed to New York. And Rust Hills had put the word out that he was looking for a replacement for himself. Wanted to retire. I was recommended to him by Hal Scharlett, the editor of E. P. Dutton. So I showed up in New York and over I go to 488 Madison, to find this extraordinary figure seated in the tiny office the fiction editor occupied. The ’69 World Series was playing on his radio, and he had his feet up on the desk and he seemed to me quite as glamorous as he had seemed to me from a distance and what is most memorable about the meeting was his nonchalance. He was smoking—I ­believe he was pretty much a chain-smoker of Camels. And he was throwing the matches into a wastebasket and had set it afire. I noticed this and with some alarm, but noticed with equal alarm that he did not seem much interested in what was beginning to be a true blaze. And I tried to catch his attention on that score and he, without even rising from his position lazing back in his chair with his feet above the desk, picked up a New York telephone book and threw it into the wastebasket and extinguished the fire. We went out the night after with Harold Hayes, Esquire’s editor in chief, and, as was the practice then, got ­plastered. In the course of the meal, I had the impression Hills and Hayes were not ­exactly sweethearts. It seems that Hills, not to mention Clay Felker and Ralph Ginzburg, all editors at Esquire, had been passed over for the top job when Arnold Gingrich, the publisher, awarded it to Hayes. Felker and Ginzburg quit, and Rust had stayed on in his post as fiction editor. Hayes was hardly literary in the sense that Rust was. Rust was completely charming. I don’t think he expected me to last in the job. Thought he could resume his old role when he wanted it back. So, sure, there was this strain between us.

INTERVIEWER

Scharlett had heard of you because of the literary magazine you founded in 1962, Genesis West?

LISH

Yes, and before GW, the Chrysalis Review and Why Work. GW made far more of a mark than it deserved. In the East, they tended to romanticize everything being done in the West. Still, we brought out Kesey and Jack Gilbert and Leonard Gardner, who later denounced me, I do believe, over the Carver affair.

INTERVIEWER

How did you first start editing Raymond Carver?

LISH

I was under contract to revise The Perrin-Smith Handbook of Current English for Scott, Foresman. My editor, Curt Johnson, came out to Palo Alto to see his people on Scott, Foresman contracts, and also his contributors to his lit mag, December. I was both. Carver had been a contributor and, I guess, a good ­buddy of his. I was at Educational Development Corporation at the time, working on A Man’s Work. So we were supposed to meet, and Johnson phoned to say, I can’t keep my appointment with you, I’m stuck here on California Street with a guy who’s too drunk to get home and his car won’t start. I rode my bicycle over there. That was how I met Carver. Then it was revealed that Carver worked across the street from my office. He was a textbook editor at Science Research Associates. When I got the idea to start up a new lit mag, I thought, Well, here’s somebody who will give himself to the endeavor. On one or two ­occasions, he came to my apartment and I fed him lunch and we talked about starting something called The American Journal of Fiction. There’s a photograph of Carver sitting at Barbara’s and my dining table, sky-high candle­sticks on it, with Ray wearing a shirt of mine. Took the picture for some book he was bringing out. By that time, Frances and I had divorced, and I was readying myself to leave town because Frances had threatened Barbara, and Barbara felt that she had nearly been run down in the street by Frances. Barbara was scared. So was I. We arrive in New York, I get the Esquire job, and had asked Carver if he would collect my mail for me and keep an eye on Frances and the kids—which he never, he in time confessed, did. In ­exchange for this, I was happy to look at his stuff. I was eager to read anybody’s work who wasn’t an Esquire regular. I read all the slush, for instance—and was less given to reacting to agented material. I wanted newcomers and was faced with the problem of satisfying Hayes and Gingrich’s notion that I was going to turn up something hitherto unseen—the New Fiction. I saw in Carver’s pieces something I could fuck around with. There was a prospect there, certainly. The germ of the thing, in Ray’s stuff, was ­revealed in the catalogue of his experience. It had that promise in it, something I could fool with and make something new seeming. “Fat” was the first one I revised, but Gingrich nixed it. I got it into Harper’s Bazaar.

Carver wasn’t the only one, you understand. I probably expended ­rather more assiduity in his case, yes. The degree of my industry was to revise a piece three, four, five times in a day. I did that on weekends, too. Not just with Ray’s work. I was keeping myself alive by doctoring books as well, ­because the Esquire salary was woefully inadequate. I would get work from McGraw-Hill or Harcourt Brace—one of those outfits that was inclined to arrange for a largish advance for a book they could not then publish without its enjoying a good deal of fixing. It never worked out well, however. There was always bad feeling in the end, always lunacy, particularly with ghost jobs. I can’t think of very many times I did such work and it didn’t end badly. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel you’ve been demonized for your editing of Carver?

LISH

Indubitably. But if you look at the worksheets in the Lilly Library, Indiana University Bloomington, they astound. No one who has not looked at the evidence could otherwise imagine what had, in fact, occurred. For all those years. Carver could not have been more enthusiastic, nor more complicit—or complacent. That mood reversed rather sharply when he appeared at the YMHA, and I met Carver and Tess Gallagher for drinks across the street. Things between us were quite obviously going south. I took it that from that point forward she was increasingly participating in what work Ray turned out. We finished Cathedral, with which, it is argued, I didn’t have anything to do at all, but I did, to be sure, Cathedral drastically less than with the first two collections—yet that was that for Ray and me.

INTERVIEWER

What did you have in mind when you were editing Carver’s stories?

LISH

If I had anything in mind when I did what I did, it was James Purdy, maybe Grace Paley a little bit, but Purdy more than anyone else—stories like “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name,” “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?,” “Daddy Wolf”—writers I’d published in New Sounds in American Fiction, via EDC, this with Cummings, a subsidiary of Addison-Wesley. I think the heroizing of Carver is nuts. As is the defense. You take any cherished object and show, No, no, that was made by Morty Shmulevitch on a lunch break on the line as a full-time jeweler, it’s unacceptable to the fans. Nobody can quite process it, conceive of the case.

INTERVIEWER

If a story comes in from an unknown writer and you know you have to do so much stuff to make it worth running in a big magazine like Esquire, why accept it at all?

LISH

To produce this so-called New Fiction. One had to devise it out of what one had, and I had Carver and plenty of others from slush. Doing, as you put it, “so much” was not a difficulty for me. I probably welcomed the opening.

INTERVIEWER

When you gave your archive to Indiana, did you know it would set off a controversy? 

LISH

I may have hoped so. When I was divorcing Frances, Andreas Brown offered me two thousand dollars for the paraphernalia that had accumulated in the production of the Chrysalis Review and Genesis West. It was staggering. We lost at least that much every time we put out a number. I saw the sense in saving everything that came to me. Everything. Under a typewriter at Esquire and at Knopf and at The Quarterly, I kept a carton and I’d drop everything in it, seal it up, and start another. When Barbara was diagnosed with ALS, the last neurologist to confirm the terrible news allowed as there was nothing to be done but to get money. I then sought to sell the papers, worksheets, and the like. Did I think the Carver would prove, at some point, combustible? Did I hope it would? Would it, on so doing, confirm recognition of a kind I believed deserved? I’d be a liar if I answered otherwise.

INTERVIEWER

What did you think when you saw the worksheets after many years?

LISH

I was pleased. Delighted. Even flabbergasted. But Carver’s were not the only ones I’d worked on to that extent. Not the only ones by a long shot. There were many. I’ve been decried for a heinous act. Was it that? Me, I think I made something enduring. For its being durable, and, in many instances, beautiful. 

INTERVIEWER

If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, how come there are books out there with your name on them?

LISH

Because I could get away with it and because it was persuasive to women. I think I’m an editor, a reviser. I think I’m a teacher. Not a writer. My son Atticus is a writer. I have the view that, in a word, in a breath, in a turn, the sublime can be created. I can do that in revising. As an editor, I stand by my taste and not by anybody else’s. Am prepared to run riot exercising my druthers. Am also, as a writer, just as convinced of my elections. But regarding talent, nah, I have nothing of consequence, although I’m a sucker for my own work.

INTERVIEWER

Was it ever your ambition to approach the sublime?

LISH

Oh sure. But never came close. You have to have an interest in the world to capture the sublime. I’m not interested in the world. You have to have an interest in people. Apart from my relations as a father, a husband, a lover, I’m not interested in people. I’m not really terribly interested in anybody else’s heart or mind, or even in my own. The great affection of my latter years, I attend to her bearing but not as I imagine others would and do. I’m not exactly autistic, but if you called me that, I wouldn’t object. Hey, I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had. I can manage, if I choose to manage, but I don’t choose to. Really, the society of others—certain friends, family, and lovers aside—is not a prominent need in me. 

To bring about the kind of work that has been brought about by a person we would cite as possessed of the power to sweep us away, one would have to be interested in others, in nature, in the machinery of the given. One would have to be interested in what’s without. I so often don’t even notice it. If I were to walk to the grocery, I will glance at a woman on the way but walk right past a war breaking out, not thinking anything of it. I would note a datum in the margin. Not so with DeLillo, for example, his apprehension of the details of the world. Not so with Cormac McCarthy or with Sam Lipsyte, for further example. Numerically speaking, for further example, I’m two times more of a father than Lipsyte is and six times a grandfather but could never render the fairly universal experience Lipsyte has of a father having lost sight of his child in the course of a visit to the park. Look at Lipsyte’s The Ask—it would just be completely beyond both my ken and my reach, to do what he did with his Bernie’s falling from view. It’s not that I can’t register it—it can be vivid for me—terrifying, of course, but I could never summon the terms of the actuality to enact the matter in prose. I’m a poseur, a potzer—not a writer in the sense that matters. Shit, are you kidding? The sublime. 

INTERVIEWER

You brought it up, the sublime.

LISH

Right. But not with respect to my own writing. Only, if ever, through my acts of revising the materials of others.

INTERVIEWER

You approach the sublime through editing?

LISH

By revising, let’s say, yes. Or so I prefer to claim.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that’s the case with Carver, or are you thinking of other writers?

LISH

I’m thinking of anybody whose work I’ve fooled around with. Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney!

INTERVIEWER

You enter into counterfactuals. The question is muddled by history.

LISH

Bullshit! I was there before there was a record to suffer muddling, confusion, sides taken. I can’t believe that what I had in my hands from Ray would have made its way into the hearts of those who have apparently been so ­undone by the work. Which work had been deformed, reformed, tampered with in every respect by, yeah, me. Contaminated, uncontaminated, that’s a discrete consideration. But readers were seduced, and, I’m sorry, but it was my ­intervention that seduced them. In it, in doing this, I fashioned a golem that would be cheered to see me destroyed. It’s nothing but a botheration to me. What have I done? What have I done? I did no different, or no differently, with others’ work, and some were supremely grateful for it, and not silent about their debt—Barry Hannah would be such a person. But Hannah, dear Barry, he was a mensch and a half.

INTERVIEWER

You were talking about your inability to apprehend the word when you walked down the street or to put your experience into words. What is the difference between that and sitting down with the text as an editor?

LISH

Entirely separate actions of the mind, of the heart. Words seem to me safe sites for me to inhabit. I think I’ve always been afraid of everything ­actual, and less afraid—or not afraid at all, finally—of what can constitute the made, and the made apart from the given. I’m afraid of my children. I’m afraid of my wives. I’m afraid of my friends, of my father, of you. I find succor in my playthings, the components of a composition I’m conniving with. I expect I’m just a fearful fellow, paranoid. It has lots, I’d guess, to do with my size, my skin, my sense of being Jewish. But when I read, when I edit, or revise, I don’t fear anything in the least. I feel at home, at peace, assured. I feel welcomed—from what prompts I do not know. I was a boy who listened to his mother. I can recollect better my father’s diction than I can my father. I was made to keep to my bed a lot—and this habitat sponsored in me much in the way of solipsism. I was never anxious when off by myself.  

INTERVIEWER

How can you tell what’s good? How can you tell shit from Shinola?

LISH

Because I’ve got the fucking gift for it. Instinct, call it. Whatever the ­property, in truth or in delusion, I depend upon it. Without a hitch. I would regard myself as infallibly able to make distinctions between this and that, distinctions others would either not make or would withdraw from acknowledging. I would think, How can they not see? I would sit with Harold Bloom with some regularity, hand over a book I thought highly of, say, Jack Gilbert or Blood Meridian, and wait for him to refuse even to look. Or if he did look, he’d not seem to see in it what I’d see. Later, when he was ­assembling his Western canon, he stuck in, I believe, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the great Suttree. All of McCarthy is great, save perhaps the novel that was so widely read—Horses, All the Pretty Horses, and The Orchard Keeper.

These determinations I make, rightly or wrongly, don’t come about by close study but rather by sense, in the instant, no room for a second thought. My tampering, if that’s the word, with this or that is an act I undertake by reason of the same sensation. Is it intuition? Or is it an act of recognizing? I feel I know something—in the Gnostic manner, say. I cannot be talked out of it, nor, for wage’s sake or to hide in the general opinion, talked into it. I don’t go along—but am furious when others don’t go along with me. How can they not revere what I revere? How is it that my gods are invisible to them? It’s inexcusable but, of course, wretchedly expectable. Am I a zealot, a terrorist, out on my own limb? Yes, with a vengeance! Just now I’m inclined to bracket a writer, Jason Schwartz, with the best—even with the far more spectacular Atticus, who takes in the whole world, and who deeply, deeply—like DeLillo, like Ozick—cares about it. Schwartz, contrastively, cares only, I’d argue, in a minor key, underscoring jots of scarcely present objects—all of it glimpsed, say, and then, as fleetingly, let go of. 

INTERVIEWER

Are there nameable qualities you look for, that your charismatic sense detects?

LISH

Difference—that’s it. To say originality would be nonsense. What’s original? Or, worse or better, aboriginal? Energy? That was Paley’s determinant. Work, blood, the daily. I don’t know, I can’t say. I know it when I have it in hand. But I know it immediately. First reading DeLillo, his “In the Men’s Room of the Sixteenth Century”—in a sentence I knew where I was. It is why I think Denis Donoghue exhibits, in a sentence, that no one can write an English sentence and beat him at it. Take Joy Williams’s recent New Yorker story, “Chicken Hill.” In the breath before she speaks, her genius is audible.

INTERVIEWER

Are you interested in anyone else’s opinion?

LISH

No, not really, or, more truly said, not at all. Would I be persuaded by anyone else’s opinion? Fat chance! Try to build a brief against Jason Schwartz, whoever you are—you’d get nowhere with me. I love for life. You could sooner divide me from Rusty or from Paco, the dogs of my heart—and I’d’ve killed for them.

INTERVIEWER

You say you are also authentically a teacher—indeed, you’re known for your writing classes. How did that come about?

LISH

I taught writing at the College of San Mateo when I was teaching high school in Millbrae, California. Then, when at Esquire—in ’71, perhaps—at Yale. The rule was you could take no more than fifteen students. I took as many as could fit in the room. Had to, after some years of commuting once a week, quit. Was nailed on a matter of political incorrectitude. They’d probably get me on darker shit now, though. I am not in the business of accommodation. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you call the class a workshop?

LISH

No, I called the class a class. It went on well past the official closing time. Derrida’s did, too. We’d meet, after hours, in Naples, the pizzeria. Thereafter, at Columbia, NYU, and when I set up a private group, we’d start at six and go to midnight or later. In Chicago and Bloomington, some classes went ten hours without letup.

INTERVIEWER

So what happens? You lecture?

LISH

I talk. When I run down, I keep talking. When I am done in, I ask a student to read. Then, on the evidence of the first sentence, I find the ground to resume talking.

INTERVIEWER

What is the format?

LISH

There is none. What occurs to me at the time as feasible, profitable, called for.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider it a form of performance?

 

LISH

You bet. But what do we do that’s not? Even when we’re hysterical or frightened to death, we’re deploying the vanities and falsifications of performance. What’s not an act? Even in seeming solitude, do we not feel ourselves called upon to dissemble for the gods? 

INTERVIEWER

So you just talk—no bathroom breaks and no questions?

LISH

No, no, there’s freedom to piss if a student wants. But since I don’t, most, if not all, follow suit. Or try to. Listen, I don’t recommend it. Atticus says I have a boggy bladder. Please that this were my only punishment for behaving as if I could get away with beating the rap. 

Oh yes, there was the exception of Noy Holland. Only once has a student read an entire composition in class, and that was Noy Holland, who read until two in the morning a longish story called “Orbit,” recited it from beginning to end. There were maybe twenty-five people in the room. Nobody moved, nobody made to go. Some people in those days would come from far away. Someone would commute from California, one from Vienna, another from Paris, there were a number from Chicago who would come twice a week when I was holding the class twice weekly, a number came from far upstate New York and from Boston. None of the workshop stuff. None of it. Ever. No reading your work, everybody sitting with a ­photostated copy of it, everybody commenting, the teacher summing up the various pros and cons, then closing with the ex cathedra view. There was no setup like this in the class. It was about teaching, not about opining and therefore the ­politics that ensues from what is inexorably a social engagement, with factionalism developing, skirmishes planned. The thing has been much reviewed—and, I would imagine, reviled or, for novelizing’s sake, seen as vitriol or opportunism. The actress Laura Linney’s father, Romulus Linney, published a swell short story satirizing, or lampooning, a workshop of the kind. Yes, it was quite a fine piece, as I recall—with a superb conclusion.

INTERVIEWER

What effect does your class have?

LISH

I think a third leave enraged. I imagine they have come for different treatment than what they receive. I think a third continue writing as they had. And a third, I reckon, are changed. At any rate, I keep up with the fortunes of very few. Too many students, so many outcomes—some powerfully other than what one might have guessed. Many have benefited from “networking,” it seems—doing very well for themselves by spreading their range of friendships and relying upon favors. They come to find out can I have your agent, can I have your publisher, can I have a tip or two or three or four. These are what are being pegged as “creative-writing professionals.” But we live with others, make our lives with others. I knew Curt Johnson. Ray Carver knew Curt Johnson. We both had had work in Johnson’s December. Then I get the Esquire job and Carver’s writing makes its way, however altered, into Esquire. Is this not the course of every aspect of the human endeavor—or call it hustle? Let me tell you, I’m happy to keep in touch with my precious Patty Marx.

INTERVIEWER

How have you been spending your time lately?

LISH

I watch TV. All the channels, all the crap, back and forth. I find it a great substitute for living. I have no complaint with it. No Baudrillard belly­aching here! But don’t have any other screens. I can spend forever with C-Span. Listen, you’re talking to someone who, when a boy, would, for hours, sit before the test pattern quite happy with its content. One would study it for changes of the subtlest kind, probably seeing distinctions that were not there. Like someone in the loony bin listening to the wall, waiting for the wall to speak, being vexed when it doesn’t, then hearing it when it isn’t. Accompanying the test pattern was a hum, and eventually music. I was stirred by these presences—and made quite at peace with myself. One loves the shamelessness of channel 13 or PBS, its running a bit by Edward R. Murrow in which he announces the inauguration of public broadcast, promising the absence of commercials. Now look! Ah, promises. When Barbara could do nothing else, TV was salvation. Thank God for it. Had she lived till digital times, her suffering would have been mediated by the riot of the Internet. We cherish these distractions. Without them, death, ­dying, waiting for the finish would be far more severe—especially if you had refused the fables and easements guaranteed by belief.

Near his death, Mailer said something worth remark. He was with his son John Buffalo on TV—C-Span, wasn’t it? Mailer said, What’s wrong with America is this—we’ve lost grammar. I like to think he didn’t mean it metaphorically, either. He meant it as stated. Grammar, we’ve lost grammar. We’ve lost, are losing, our language—or a language. It falls away from us in tragic fragments like a disintegrating garment. It’s inevitable, of course—but for those who got used to moving in that medium, it’s sad. Sure, there’s ­always new language, languages, to learn. But at eighty-two, I don’t have the muscle for learning even simplisms. There is what Lecercle called “the violence of language.” Its flux is deadly for those who cannot adjust to change. Shit, I don’t want to adjust. If I had the muscle to do it, I’d refuse to budge. My people came from somewhere else. It cost them to make way for a child to speak a certain form of English. I suppose I don’t want to take their sacrifice lightly—don’t want to dishonor their gift by going along with an ­idiom they’d have the ear to guess was abhorrent to the mind of God. I’m no ­believer, but I’m not kidding or overstating. TV, even when it’s C-Span’s version of it—indeed, especially when it’s C-Span’s version of our speech and, thus, of our thinking—is another country, one where there is the remnant of grammar, but its gown’s drifted off into a gully from which there is no recovering it. That’s a social good, right? But it’s a personal grief, a god­awful heartbreak. It’s okay—everybody is watching the show! 

Take basketball. It’s not played as it once was. DeLillo used to insist that the way the game is now played exhibits far more skill and verve and theater. Don and I go back to the days of George Mikan and the hook shot. There’s none of that anymore. Everything is always something else. As DeLillo writes somewhere, you go to bed and in the morning get up and see everything changed around. It’s been rearranged, in the night, all of it. That’s the deal for every living one of us. I’m certain it’s beautiful, I’m certain it’s ineluctable. I’m even convinced it’s the expression of genius on the job. Genius! But for me, it’s spooky, unbearable, incoherent, theft. Life’s a war zone. Death’s the sanctuary. You want to be safe? Or in unspeakable dis­array? These are the bleatings of an old man who just seeks to get older and be left alone while he’s trying to do it.