Paul Maliszewski is a friend of mine. He recently published a short-story collection called Prayer and Parable. Around the end of last summer, I asked him if I could interview him about it. We exchanged questions by e-mail for a week. Several times I said that I was incompetent—forget the whole thing—but Paul reassured me I was doing fine. What I especially like about the book is that Paul doesn’t compromise when it comes to portraying reality. He’s a little like Fellini in 8 ½: he preserves the confusion, meaninglessness, suddenness, and asa nisi masa of the everyday.
I have a question that might be a little bit unanswerable. I know you think a lot about individual sentences, and I wondered what makes a good sentence. Am I right in thinking that you give a lot of time to them?
I do give a lot of attention to sentences, but mainly because they don’t come out right for me on the first go-round, or the second, or the eighth, or the thirtieth. Revising takes me a lot of time. I drive myself crazy. I’ll just stare at lines. There are sentences in this book where I had a page, back and front, of all the different versions I was at one time trying. One sentence I’m thinking of was not particularly long or complex, but it was at the end of a story, and I didn’t want it to seem too ending-y, or pat. So there I was, scratching out, writing something new, circling back.
Reading like that is a hard thing to turn off. I catch myself revising e-mails and I think, What are you doing? When I’m working on a story or essay, if I find something messed up, I make myself start over and read it through again. If I find something else wrong, I start back over, and I keep starting over until I can read it without stopping, until I don’t suffer any doubts. That takes a long time, Worse, sometimes revising one sentence throws things off further down the page. It’s like I’m working on a pipeline and making a repair at one point, and whatever fix I make feels right, but it twists things around so that they get gummed up later.
Complicating all this is that what I want from a sentence has changed over the years, even in the time I was working on this collection. When I went back to the older stories, I found so much to cringe over. I thought that was good? I read it how many times? And some magazine accepted it? Good God, I’d look at these sentences and think, What nonsense, what crap. Often there was too much flash. I’ve come to see flash as self-regarding, as reflecting back on me, the super writer, and that’s not where I want people’s attention. It was like there was some element in the older sentences pleading, Praise me, pat me on the head. I’d rather risk seeming flat just so long as it means an end to the arm waving.
I’m much more interested now in sentences that contain a story voice—the main narrative vehicle—as well as several character’s interior voices, all of which drop in and out as needed, sometimes only for a phrase. Creating a story that can indicate those slight shifts in the language, and do it subtly and quickly, without tags or signals, so that the words themselves indicate to the reader, Oh, this is the character thinking now—that’s what’s important to me. That’s part of the reason I decided not to use quotation marks. I want the words to do all the work. If it’s speech, the words should sound like speech. I shouldn’t need a little typographical hint. I think it’s worth taking this stuff on, making it hard for yourself. Hugh Kenner, in one of his books about Joyce, described how each character in Ulysses has this field of language, like a cloud around the character, and while there is overlap—they do speak the same language, finally—certain words can only be Bloom’s, say. I love that.
One of my favorite things about your writing is the humor. Is there some joke that comes up in your mind again and again?
We’re having work done on our house, in the basement. The other day, I was down there with my son. He likes to see the men at work. That’s what he says—“Can we go see the men at work, daddy?” We were down there, talking to the contractor, and a plumber was there, too, about to cut a piece of PVC pipe, and the contractor said to us, “Ooh, watch this. This is a cool tool.” The plumber picked up this handheld saw with a claw on it, and the claw grabbed the pipe and held it, and then a small circular blade went right through the pipe. Am I losing you with the technical talk, Barrodale? It was really fast, with almost no noise, like that pipe was butter. Anyway, I said, “What’s that called?” because I thought my son would want to know, and frankly, I wanted to know myself. The contractor said, “He used to have a guy called Slim who all he did all day was cut pipe, just like that. But then he got that saw, and he fired Slim, so now he calls the saw Slim.” That made me laugh. It’s so mean and sad and funny and true.
For some reason, I also can’t shake this joke from Zoolander. You know the part where Will Ferrell’s character has just unveiled the architectural model for the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good? And Ben Stiller bends down to take it in, studying it, and then he says, “What is this? A center for ants?” I just found the clip on YouTube and watched it, and it still makes me laugh. Then I watched it again, and I was laughing in anticipation of the line. He’s so indignant, Stiller, like it’s an insult even to show him this thing. And Zoolander, of course, is incredibly stupid—that’s the running joke—but it’s not the stupidity that makes me laugh. It’s the certainty, the utter conviction. Whenever his intelligence gets maxed out, the arrogance kicks in. That’s not just Zoolander, though. It’s human nature. Flannery O’Connor works the arrogance-intelligence sweet spot really well.
Maybe you could talk about what prompted the passage below, if something did:
The man tidied and picked up a little. He straightened a pile of magazines and then looked around the living room to see was there anything he was missing or something he should do. While he worked, he thought over what he had said about this dream of his and what it might mean, if mean was the correct word, even. He checked it for the fatal false note. He’d had ideas like this before. Big thoughts, he called them, which he meant disparagingly, because who was he kidding, really? He would not, however, talk himself out of it, not this time. Even if it wasn’t actually a big thought, it was his, and he refused to take it back. Nor would he think, as he often did, But then what do I know? There was no more point in self-deprecation. There simply was no time. That was the problem—and here the man included all his friends, and all the woman’s friends, everyone their age or thereabouts. The problem with them all was they had done so much of that disingenuous shuffling about, the aw-shucksing, the pay no attention to me, I’m crazy or drunk or stupid routine, that they had precious little self left. And what had they ever got in exchange? Anything? They had apologized when they shouldn’t have, when they didn’t even mean it. They had mocked themselves, not because they deserved a good deflating but because they were afraid, more than anything else, of being criticized. They had begged—begged—not to be taken seriously. And so now what? What next? The man didn’t know. He wasn’t being disingenuous, he really didn’t know. They just couldn’t go on as they’d been going on. That was the main thing. The man did know that.
There wasn’t any one thing. It’s our predicament, at this time and at our age, to avoid saying the grand thing—to be scared of it, or to say it and then, in the very next moment, undercut ourselves, want to take it all back, dial it down, turn it into a big joke. This habit of mind started from a good place. You can trace it back to what we’re taught in college: be skeptical of capital-T Truth, look suspiciously at all-encompassing explanations. But it’s gotten out of hand. You hear it in conversation. Someone risks something, some idea they have, something they’re struggling to give words to, and how do they follow it up? They disassociate themselves from it. They say, But what do I know, right? Even about stupid stuff, like an opinion of a new movie. You can see it, too, in the profusion of phrases like sort of and kind of. People take shelter under words like maybe and probably when they could, by rights, insist and declare. On sitcoms, the most earnest character will always, immediately, be cut down in the next moment. It’s the dance move of our time, that little two-step. I struggle with it myself, all the time.
When I was working on this story, I had a shorter version of this scene. The whole middle was gone. Over time, as I reread the story, that passage started to seem thin, like I was avoiding saying something because I didn’t want to go on too long. I was worried it might seem speechy or preachy. The scene itself was a prime example of what I wanted all along to explain and avoid.
There’s this side of your writing that I really like—we could call it the puckish side of you. I wonder if you could tell some stories about morons you have known. I love when a person irritates you.
Morons I have known? This could get long. Let me limit myself by telling you about an agent whose orbit I briefly came into. I haven’t, I should say, had great experiences with agents. One of my earliest brushes came while I was editing writing for a Web site. A well-known agent mailed me a package containing three short humor pieces. Also included were a cover letter on creamy stock, a one-page bio for the writer, and three pages (at least) of blurbs. All this material was tucked inside the pockets of a folder so nice I kept it for years. The writing itself was crap, and the folder and all the rest made it seem like a turd wrapped up in silver paper. I remember thinking, This is what agents do?
But I mean to tell you about another agent, the one I came to call the cheerleader. Whenever I talked to her, she was always saying how psyched she was. She was full of wild praise so beyond what I deserved to receive that, when I heard it, I felt immediately bad for not living up to her enthusiasm. I mean, I’m like the losingest team in high school football here, and yet this agent was so unflappably perky, rooting for me no matter how grim the game looked. It got so bad that I dreaded hearing from her. If there was a message that she had called, I’d call back after a few days. If there was an e-mail, I’d put off reading it.
Once, she went to a meeting with an editor and came back with this book idea that the editor really wanted to do. It was, she felt, the perfect idea for me. The book was to be about the future, I think, how the past has imagined the future over the years, or maybe it was about the moon, I can’t remember now. It was something I knew nothing about and had expressed no interest in. She was so jazzed about this book project, though, and all I could do was say, Uh, I have a lot of ideas already and am working on so many different things as it is. She didn’t even sound slightly deflated. It was just like, Okay!, and then onto the next thing.
Another time she asked me about this book of letters to the president I was writing, the thing I’m still working on ever so slowly, and she said, “I know this is a crazy question, but … ” And I thought, Here we go. I mean, everything she said sounded a little bit crazy. “Have you,” she asked, “ever thought about doing this as a graphic novel?” Graphic novels were, I was given to understand, really hot just then. I stared at that e-mail for a while. Did it really say what I think it said? It did. I finally wrote her back and said, “Well, you know, that is a crazy question.” And then: “No, I’ve never thought of making my novel into a graphic novel.” I mean, I can’t draw.
Last story. I showed her my essay about Michael Chabon when I was still trying to get it published, and about a week later, she wrote that she loved it, blah blah blah, but of course she loved everything. Then she told me she had just watched this episode of The Wire where they say if you are going to hunt the king, you best not miss. I think the wisdom of that was supposed to be apparent, or else I was to allow it to sink in and then know just what to do with it. I was, she assured me, hunting big game here. Anyway, the e-mail went on, asking me questions I was pretty sure I had answered. And yet, in spite of everything that had passed between us, I still thought she could help. I was open to her guidance. I wanted her to identify some weakness in my argument. The e-mail ended with further counsel: Wear your Seymour Hersh hat, she said, and THEN wear your Edmund Wilson hat. “Does this sound good to you?” she asked. It sounds confusing, I know it does, but the sad thing was, at the time, I thought it sounded good. I was like, “Okay, first the Hersh then the Wilson.” I thanked her for the advice.