an interview with
are you a writer?
I guess so. I'm a writer who's been trying to quit writing for a decade or more. I'm a lazy writer. At times a frustrated and bitter writer. Also a jealous writer who has a hard time going to new bookshops. ('They have a book out? How did that happen?') A 'why are they famous and not me' sort of writer. Often a creatively constipated writer. But these days I'm mostly a diaper changing father writer, almost a poop ninja of sorts. In my dreams I'm a Captain Beefheart sort of writer. A Paul Bowles expat writer. The caliber of writer who can spin a novel that causes people to quit their marriage, their job, and move 5,000 miles away. A writer of songs like Arthur Lee, Scott Walker, Nick Drake, or Richard Thompson. The kind of writer who craves a small devoted cult following that passionately cares about everything I ever do. Though I guess I'm frequently a Zen writer, in that I dream of writing, because with an infant and a toddler I have so little time in which to scribble anything more meaningful than a grocery list.
Grocery lists are important. Do you find yourself editing your grocery list? For instance if you spell carrot with one r.
I wrestled in high school and wrestlers are famous list makers. They have to be. You can't eat from November to March, so we'd make lists of all the food we were going to binge on when the seaon finally ended.
Habits die hard. I tend to keep tons of want lists for CDs, books, DVDs. I do try and keep them accurate. I also write a lot of grocery lists as I'm at a grocery store or a drug store almost every single day because of the kids. Those lists are scrawled and unintelligible. When I think of grocery lists though I think of A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the great Sci Fi novels. I'm not sure my grocery list would make me worthy of canonization.
So, you are a lister. In your book Sugar Mountain, there is much talk of crows? Why not bunny rabbits? Have crows appeared elsewhere in your many works? Have bunny rabbits? And is this book your most auto-biographical? Are you a crow?
Crows are staples of folklore and myth. Bunny rabbits aren't though Monty Python did have a killer rabbit. Sugar Mountain is only autobiographical in terms of local color. My most autobiographical work is in one of my poetry volumes--Buoyancy and Other Myths. I think I have some other crow poems but they're not an obsession for me though they are for Taylor in Sugar Mountain. Nah I'm not a crow. I'm more of a hedgehog, or a fish.
by local color, you mean the washington d.c. area? how do you think the d.c. literary scene compares with others., e.g. nyc, la, sf, boston, etc., etc.,?
Yep. I was born in DC and have lived in DC, MD and now in VA. most of my life.
I've always been an historian, fan and even apologist for the DC lit scene, have spent a lot of time and effort trying to nurture, expand, and catalyze this place. But the truth is the major publishing houses are in NYC and that's the heart of the biz. Nowadays when students ask me for advice I tell them to move to NYC. You go to parties there and you meet people in the biz. You go to parties in DC and you tend to meet lawyers, journalists and politicians. (I could do without all three myself.) Boston has a long literary tradition. I love Cambridge and lived in Boston for a couple months back in 1976. San Francisco is lively though DC's sister city has to be L.A. Why? Cuz DC is a company town like L.A. Here if you're not in politics you don't exist. In L.A. it's the film industry. Same deal.
But if I could be any place I'd choose London right now. They have fewer TV channels and a large public that actually reads. In this country we tend to stay in school until we're 25. The Brits know their future when they take a test at 18 that either puts them in college or on the dole. To put it in perspective it means that you have all of these young authors who have 3-5 novels out by the time they're 30 because they just start writing at 18. While over here most writers are just receiving their MFAs at 25. Maybe they have a novel out by 30. Still, in America people think Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott are young writers. It's nuts.
So why am I still here? I've been trying to move to New Mexico for 25 years. Thought I'd land my dream teaching job two years ago but I didn't even land an interview. (And the job description fit me perfectly which just sucks. Oddly the guy who won the job was somebody I'd awarded a grant as a judge for the Massachusetts Arts Council a couple years before.) That pretty much tore it for me. I've given up any hope of ever getting tenure now. Just wasn't meant to be. I still adjunct some for Johns Hopkins but these past three years I've mostly been a stay-at-home dad.
i see the word culture? you've been editor of a series of books that deal with american pop icons? mondo barbie, mondo james dean, marilyn monroe. what's the fascination richard, i mean, why not mondo james earl jones? he is probably more interesting than the others and he was luke skywalker's father's voice.
Well, I've learned from experience that it's difficult to cobble an anthology together if some of the work doesn't already exist. In the case of Mondo Barbie maybe 75% of that book was already in various collections of short stories or novels or poetry volumes. All Lucinda and I needed to do was scavenger hunt for material and then get people to write the other 25%. And some of the best stories in that book were created on a 2-week deadline. I think Mondo Barbie was one month from initial idea to book sale.
Mondo Elvis was another no-brainer. There's tons of Elvis material. Enough for 3 other existing anthologies that I'm aware of, with enough leftover material for a couple more.
Mondo Marilyn also benefited from a lot of existing material. And people are still writing about her. Joyce Carol Oates dug her up again just recently. I thought that was a decent book but we might have fared better if we'd done Madonna. The problem is that very few people have written any fiction about Madonna. It's a lot more daunting to try and run with 25 existing or reprint material and 75% new work. A lot harder.
Mondo James Dean was closer to a 50-50 split. And I think the book was weaker because of that. St. Martin's almost didn't publish that one. And afterwards they kind of wrote us off. A big drag as we have another 6 completed anthologies in search of publishers.
But then again we're batting .500 (counting the other 3 anthologies we've sold) and that's great in baseball after all.
Mondo Star Wars has been suggested. As have Mondo Barney and Mondo Gandhi. But the truth is that the material just isn't there. We were fortunate to plug into existing veins of fiction. That's what made them work.
speaking of anthologies, tell us a little bit about gargoyle. it seems to be a highly acclaimed literary magazine.
We used to have these T-shirts that had a silk screen of the first cover on one side and "Art Martyr" on the back in the shape of a cross. Since I co-founded Gargoyle back in 1976 it has been a boon, a weight, a worry, almost 24-7. People used to ask me if I worked for Gargoyle and I'd say "I am Gargoyle." I killed it when it stopped being fun back in 1990 but Lucinda convinced me to bring it back (along with Maja Prausnitz) in 1997. We did it partly out of our frustration with the NY book world. Control issues. (There were 3 typos on the cover of Mondo Marilyn for example. You don't get to proof your covers.)
By 1997 we had a track record with the Mondo series and we'd plugged into a much wider net of possible writers to hit up for work. When I began Gargoyle we were interested in new voices, in discovering people, as well as in re-discovering lost or forgotten writers. When we did the Allen Ginsberg interview about Jack Kerouac almost 90% of Kerouac's work was o.p. Hard to believe right now. We ran an essay on Paul Bowles when he really only had 2-3 books in print. And I've always been interested in people like Charles Webb who wrote The Graduate and was huge and then wrote 6-7 other novels nobody's ever read and kind of disappeared. People like that fascinate me. (Of course he's back now and has a recent novel out.)
Recently we've run work by Nick Cave, Richard Hell, Ray Bradbury, Lance Olsen, Kim Addonizio, Nin Andrews, Wanda Coleman, Lidia Yuknavitch, Diane Williams, Julia Slavin and Nani Power.
Back to what you said about local color: Slavin went to BCC and is one of a crop of writers like A.M. Homes (one of the reasons we did Mondo Barbie), Tracy Chevalier, and Laura Hillenbrand, who recently graduated from that high school. But there are others with local connections like Pagan Kennedy who went to Holton-Arms.
I can go on for hours. But info on the mag is on the website at www.atticusbooks.com. We're starting to put all of the back issues online. If you click on back issues and on the individual covers you get the table of contents and you just click on individual items to read them. I hope by the end of the year to have the bulk of the 1976-1990 issues online.
do you think most people read and write pabulum? i feel like checking the nytimes bestsellers list right now to verify this. if they do, is it because of the fast-paced world in which we live in that is anathema to pauses and thoughtful writing and reading? or are those people just dumb?
Oh Lord, deliver me from the mass market audience. I think it comes down to the realization that the actual readership for serious literature is indeed very tiny. I have a lot of friends who have 2-3 books out and nobody's ever heard of them. Meanwhile right-wing cretins like Tom Clancy sell millions. Why? I came to the conclusion years ago that I was interested in music and films and art and books by people that most of the world could care less about. Bestsellers cultivate a vertical audience. I mean nobody reads Jaws any longer. Yet it was huge one summer. I'm after a horizontal readership. And by that I mean an audience that continues to read and discover what I'm doing after the fact. Works that continue living and finding new readers years later. That's the goal for me. To generate a semi-permanent buzz. But you're rightmost readers want to read something they know, something that's pre-chewed, something the media tells them to read. Recent politics has proved for me at least that America is primarily a country of sheep. Original ideas are as rare as ever. People interested in original artworks or thoughts are almost as extinct as the dodo. Given a choice between talents like Aimee Mann and Jeanette Winterson vs. popular genre writers the public opts for what they know. There's a comfort level in that for them. The same old same old. I mean I understand why they choose safe. When you realize that the primary reading audience in America is 80% female you also realize that the odds on making it as a semi-experimentalist male writer are slim to none. Unless you're a genre writer of one kind or another.
Carl Hiassen, for example, is writing bent novels that appear to be mysteries. I think most of his readership buys them as mysteries and they're sold in the mystery section at bookstores, but they're really dark satires on life right now. I just don't think most people get what he's really up to.
My writing and Gargoyle itself tend toward bent. My sister-in-law on reading Sugar Mountain said, "How does it feel to be the kind of writer whose daughters will never be allowed to read his books." Say what? I mean, no, it's not a novella for elementary school kids. But I'm sure they'll read my work someday. They may like it, or some of it? Who knows? I've just never been moved to write stories that have been done a zillion times. I try to find new angles, new subject matter. We do the same thing with the magazine. Gargoyle is more apt to publish something risky and original than we are to publish something in the Raymond Carver vein. That's just who we are as editors and readers.
But at the same time Gargoyle is a weird beast. We're too underground for the established powers that be in the lit world and yet we're too academic and straight for the really out there Zines and mags. It's an awkward position but where we seem to be these days. One foot in realism and one foot in experimental writing. We happen to like both.
it's a damn shame. so when you aren't changing diapers that aren't yours, what have you been writing? anything new that the write this readers can look forward to seeing from you?
I had some anti-war poems in both Sam Hamill's Poets Against the War anthology and in Todd Swift's 100 Poets Against the War. I didn't make the cut for the print version of Hamill's book but I'm in the online version and I'm in both print and online versions of Swift's book. I also spent 10 days at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in early 2002 and completed a nf memoir: Twyla Tales: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Rookie Dad but nobody seems to want it. I suppose Eddie Murphy's new Daddy Daycare flick will make that even more difficult.
I have a lot of other things I want to write but I've been teaching some and editing manuscripts instead. It's easier to read and think than it is to actually write at the moment. Taking a break from the other stuff is easier. Simply tougher to find a large block of time in which to create. I did have a lot of fun putting together a CD issue of Gargoyle over the past few months. That worked well. Gave me room to gather some singer-songwriters and spoken word poets together into a mix I feel really good about. It's just out at Amazon.com, Cdstreet.com and Cdbaby.com.
where do you see literature going? becoming?
Hmm. Well, both David Foster Wallace and Lance Olsen have edited collections of essays on the topic. Wallace for the Review of Contemporary Fiction back in 1996 and Olsen in a book entitled Surfing Tomorrow which appeared in 1995. I recommend tracking down copies of both collections.
When Lucinda Ebersole and I brought Kathy Acker to DC for a gig back in 1991 I thought I knew where the future of literature was heading. Post Acker I can't say I'm sure any more.
I think it's safe to say now that most people don't have a lot of patience with Hypertext. They love it as an idea but the time investment seems akin to Fan Fiction for Buffy or Dungeons and Dragons type gamesters. And everybody I know has less and less time in which to do anything.
I think it's also clear that the net may have peaked. And by that I mean that people who already own computers buy upgrades but that more than 50% of the population doesn't own, want or need a computer. They aren't buying them. And most of that population is 50+. So I'd say print is here to stay (for the time being).
Spoken Word has exploded venues for gigs and audiences but I think it's a fad and it'll get old in the way that endless open readings get old. (As they did in the 50s and 60s.) That energy isn't translating to the print world. I mean people aren't buying more poetry books that I can see.
The corporations continue to swallow more and more publishing houses, bookshops, and review outlets. That will contiue until they no longer can earn any cha-ching, at which point I hope they unload them all. And my dream is that we can return to books published by people who actually read and write and care about literature. May happen someday.
Meanwhile we write on in our caves and garrets illuminated by the cathode ray tubes of our computers. I know I'm part of a tribe. That's the good part. We may preach to the choir but we're still slinging the stuff out there. Some of it makes it, some of it doesn't. Some of it seems to drop into a black hole. Some of it gets read. That's really all you can hope for. Maybe, with luck, some of this stuff resonates down the road somewhere. Who can say?
any last words?
I can't find the exact quote but to paraphrase Molly Ivins: Give me people who burn the flag and wrap themselves in the Constitution over people who burn the Constitution and wrap themselves in the flag.