Desperate Measures: An Interview with David Gordon


At Work

David Gordon_Credit Michael Sharkey

Photo: Michael Sharkey

David Gordon’s fiction doesn’t fall comfortably into one category. Depending on what you’re reading and who you’re talking to, he might be a mystery writer, a postmodernist, a satirist, or a hybrid. His new collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, runs an impressive gamut. Its cast is large and varied—there are gunmen, grad students, investigators, vampires, struggling writers, Internet sex trolls, and men named David Gordon. (One of these stories, “Man-Boob Summer,” first appeared in The Paris Review’s Fall 2012 issue.) Gordon’s sentences are crisp and often jarring. His plots unspool in strange, sometimes disturbing ways. There’s little to be gained in trying to situate yourself according to generic conventions; better just to enjoy the disorientation and to trust that you’re in the hands of an earnest storyteller.

I met with Gordon, who has also published two novels, on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. School was letting out next door, but Gordon’s booming voice carried over the two-thirty hysteria. We spoke over the course of the afternoon about repurposing genres, literary stardom in Japan (the Japanese translation of his first novel, The Serialist, was a major success), the risks of first-person storytelling, and the publishing-industry controversy swirling around him.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain is your first story collection. Did you approach the stories differently than you would a novel?

In conceptual terms, I do think there’s a difference, at least for me. A story usually comes into my mind like a three-dimensional object—something I can see and feel and rotate. I’m often completely wrong about what the object is, but it’s still there. Whereas a novel is more like a set of directions for a road trip to California, with a planned stop in, say, Colorado and a visit to the Grand Canyon. The truth is I have no idea what’s going to happen along the way or whether I’ll even get there, but I have this general sense of direction and an end I hope to reach.

Now that the stories are completed and assembled, are you surprised at any of the themes or images that crop up?

I wrote these stories over a period of years, so some of the thematic echoes that people point out seem fairly straightforward for somebody who’s been writing for a long time—you deal with certain recurring ideas and problems. But then there are very specific echoes that I wasn’t aware of, and those are really interesting to me. My protagonists eat a lot of Chinese food and go to a lot of cafés. People tend to have cats in my stories, and the women have long fingers. I have no idea where this stuff comes from. I have no lost love with long fingers. I guess these things just leak out of my subconscious.

Your narrators often share biographical details with you. Sometimes they’re even named David Gordon.

In this collection—in the story “What I’ve Been Trying to Do All This Time,” for example—I called the narrator David Gordon because my friend Rivka Galchen had put me in a story of hers. She had a character named David who went to her apartment to borrow money, and I wanted to build something around that idea. But it’s never me in these stories. It’s more that as I was trying to do this project, I was rummaging around in the garage and the attic for useful material. I might use my old bunk bed, but I’m sawing it up, getting out the hammer and nails and making it into something new. The narration is always based on a decision about how best to get the material across. I don’t say to myself, I’m going to be meta today. I just have what I think is an idea for a good story, and then I devise practical solutions for telling that story. I’m sure a shrink could come up with explanations for why I make certain choices, but to me that doesn’t matter. They’re always more or less desperate measures to get the story written.

Struggling and failed writers seem to be a mainstay in your work. You’ve had quite a bit of success with your own writing, so I wonder, without involving any shrinks—why that particular fixation?

It’s been a very long haul. I’m one of those weird people who knew in the second grade that this is what I wanted to do with my life and really set about doing it. At least in my own mind, I was trying to be a poet and to write serious fiction at the age of seven. I was probably sending things to The Paris Review when I was a teenager. But I really didn’t start publishing until four or five years ago. It felt like a long, epic journey to where I wanted to be as a writer. So in a strange way, I think I tend to write about people who are somehow living in this twilight where they’re not really part of mainstream society. They might be comp-lit professors or artists or drug dealers, but they tend to be on the fringes. That’s just where I found myself trapped for twenty-some-odd years. If I meet somebody now and they say they’ve heard my name or read my work, I assume they must have me mixed up with someone else. It takes a long time to undo that underdog mentality.

You’ve managed to straddle the line between mystery and literary fiction, and in this collection you look to other genres as well.

I think that horror and sci-fi in particular are great generators of imagery, and genre produces great characters. To find figures in Western culture as lasting and powerful as Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, you have to go to the Bible or Greek myths or Shakespeare. But as my work matures, it’s really more about the forms of genre storytelling—the way these stories shape and generate and vivify narrative. I’m trying to express something very personal through these classic forms, to use them as a poet uses a sonnet form.

The title story, for example—“White Tiger on Snow Mountain”—has more or less the structure of a horror story, though it’s not really plot driven or fantastical. I found myself looking for a kind of haunted-house, thriller moment when I was writing that one. There’s a scene in which the protagonist is getting sucked deep into the world of alternative sex on the Internet and somebody he’s IMing with writes something really startling to him: “Fuck off Jew.” The image that came into my head at that moment was of a black-gloved hand reaching out and grabbing the character. That’s something that would happen in a cheesy horror movie. But that’s the emotional reality of where this character is. I don’t feel inhibited about using that stuff because it’s not literary enough any more than I feel inhibited about letting characters go off on internal monologues about literature and childhood, even if certain mystery fans don’t like that stuff. It’s just what sticks to my imagination.

In a recent piece for the Times—“Writing is a Risky, Humiliating Endeavor”—you discussed, among other things, being confused for your characters and writing stories that some people might find offensive. Which of the stories in this collection do you consider the riskiest?

The title story is probably the riskiest because there are just so many things in there that could upset people. It’s in the realm of alternative sexuality, but it doesn’t have the cover of being erotic. The sex in that story isn’t hot and steamy at all—it’s cold and clammy. It also deals with masochism, people with body issues and daddy issues, and the narrator announces up front that he’s impotent. It’s a forest of triggers, really, and all these issues invite strangers who might happen across the story to think badly of me. There’s this writerly impulse—you want a roomful of strangers to watch you unwrap all these uncomfortable topics, but then as a shy person the thing you most dread is having those strangers judge you. You need to turn that off and let people think what they want. Or you can’t write.

This is probably as good a time as any to ask you about your professional experience in the world of pornography. You worked for a while at Hustler, right?

I really needed work and I had a friend who was the executive editor at Hustler and the czar of Larry Flynt’s porn magazines. He invited me to write a freelance piece for another magazine called Barely Legal, so I ended up writing a guide for women who wanted to date criminals. It gave the pros and cons of dating, say, a car thief or a drug dealer. And apparently that went over well, so they offered me a job. I wasn’t in a position to say no. I think I started as an associate editor at Hustler, but really I worked in a lot of different capacities for Hustler, Chic, and Barely Legal. I did a little of everything. I wrote covers, I wrote straight articles, I bought photo sets, I did paginations, I placed ads. I’d even do the special issues. It would be about blondes or big butts or something, and I would make those editions by going through old issues with an X-Acto knife and cutting stuff out, writing new copy, laying it down and putting it through a glue machine. I could pretty much make a magazine.

Do you consider your time there in any way a formative writing experience?

In a certain ironic sense, that was kind of the straightest job I ever had. I had to be there at nine and wear a tie. I was sitting in an office and had deadlines. For any young writer, it’s not a bad thing to have somebody saying, I need five hundred words about x by this time or you don’t get to pay your bills this month. It burns out any coddled workshop ideas you might have about lying on the couch and waiting for inspiration to come. And that comes in handy because there’s going to come a point right around draft four where you hate writing your novel as much as you hate writing ad copy or anything else. You learn to treat writing like a job, because it is. That can be freeing and sort of comforting in a way.

Do you think that experience shaped your view of sex or relationships?

Not really, because any misshaping was probably already done. I was hired for my dirty mind, not in spite of it. And really, this was just a job. The people I worked with went on to become successful writers, lawyers. There were hip young women from RISD and Parsons in the art department. Basically, we were just a bunch of overeducated, slightly haunted young people who needed the work.

Earlier this year you had another piece in the Times about the success of your first novel, The Serialist, in Japan. How big a success are we talking?

It’s pretty big—more or less a best seller. I mean, I still live in a walk-up apartment in Brooklyn, so it’s not Harry Potter, millionaire big. But it ended up winning these three awards the year it came out over there, and apparently that was a historic first, so in that sense it was kind of a phenomenon. I’m sure Murakami’s new book sold a hundred times more copies, but for a foreign book to do that well was extraordinary—just really odd.

The book has nothing to do with Japan. It takes place in Queens and the narrator is white. I don’t really have a theory about its success, but in the two places where it did particularly well—Japan and France—there’s a tradition of taking pulp writing seriously. I don’t think my book falls in that category because it’s too self-consciously literary, but I think a lot of Japanese readers were fans of genre writing—the same as I was. And I’m told that in Japan there’s a tradition, or maybe a trend, of loose, casual first-person narration. Keep in mind, though, that all this was explained to me by people when I was in Japan, sometimes through translators. The levels of misunderstanding are many.

I sometimes think about the Japanese books and movies I love and I wonder if I’m totally misunderstanding them—if serious Japanese filmgoers are seeing something else entirely when they watch a Kurosawa film, for instance. And then I think that really it doesn’t even matter, because my experience of those films was valuable to me. With books and movies and music, we’re able to assume ownership, to feel like these things belong to us. They might be hundreds of years old, but we feel they were made for us. It’s incredibly gratifying to think that there’s someone feeling that way about my book, whether it’s a businessman on the Tokyo subway or a young woman in Arizona.

Your new book is being published by Little A, which is an imprint of Amazon Publishing. The dispute between Amazon and big publishers like Hachette has been in the news lately, and a lot of writers have come out against Amazon. What has your experience been so far? Do you feel at all uncomfortable with your position

In terms of the big picture, I do feel a little like a peasant who’s been caught in a war between the overlords. But, Ed Park, my editor at Little A, was the person who was by far the most excited about my last novel. I met him and he was brilliant and he was the one I shook hands with. This collection was his idea, too. He’s really the person I’ve worked with, and that experience has been amazing. I think that’s what drives these decisions for most working writers.

Dwyer Murphy is a Brooklyn-based writer. He is currently an Emerging Writer Fellow at the Center for Fiction.