For nearly 40 years Gary Gildner has made a life through writing—and writing well. He has doggedly persisted in following his own conscience and the belief that writing can make a difference, not only in the life of the reader but in the life of the writer as well. And he has succeeded—no small task today. His first real encounter with writing was, naturally, as a reader. In high school and recovering from a baseball injury (a legitimate and scouted prospect for a professional pitching career), his sister brought him, "just to pass some time," a few books from the library. Right away he could see that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Melville were "on to some things." He started writing as an undergrad at Michigan State and "never looked back."
Along the way Gildner has published 19 books, including The
Second Bridge (a novel), The Crush and A Week in South
Dakota (short stories), The Warsaw Sparks (a memoir about
coaching a baseball team in communist Poland), and Blue Like the
Heavens: New and Selected Poems. His most recent work includes The
Bunker in the Parsley Fields, which received the 1996 Iowa Poetry
Prize, and My Grandfather's Book (2002), which was named a Top Ten
University Press Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine.
He has also received the National Magazine Award for Fiction, Pushcart
Prizes for fiction and nonfiction, the Robert Frost fellowship, the
William Carlos Williams and the Theodore Roethke poetry prizes, and two
National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He held a teaching
appointment at Drake University for over 20
Born and raised in the Midwest, Gildner now lives and writes on a ranch in Idaho's Clearwater Mountains. He leaves once each fall to promote his latest work and make his annual reading and teaching tour that keeps him both busy as well as close to the many students who love his work and his willingness to share what it means to be a writer. His new collection of short stories Somewhere Geese are Flying is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004 from Michigan State University Press.
Follow the links below to see other work published in
Studies by Gary Gildner:
Brad L. Roghaar (B.A. English Ed., M.A. English Lit.) teaches literature at Weber State University where he edits Weber Studies and directs the Creative Writing Emphasis. His work has appeared in several journals, and he is a contributor to Utah Centennial Anthology of Our Best Writers. His first book Unravelling the Knot: Poems of Connection won the Pearle M. Olsen Award, and he was named Utah Poet of the Year in 1992. An avid backpacker, skier, and retired climber, he has traveled and trekked in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle-East.
Your most recent book is a memoir centered around your grandfather. When did you become interested in writing My Grandfather's Book?
I had been writing about him for years. Much of the stuff I did I tucked away, but I started the real work when I was in Poland. I was in the country—or the region—he was from. When he left there, politically there was no Poland. He grew up in the northern part of Austria. In fact, his birth certificate reads Austria, not Poland. So it just started with me being curious about him all over again, calling up some of the things that I knew, talking with my mother. In fact, the first version of My Grandfather's Book begins with that chapter where I'm sitting in my mother's back yard, talking about her dad. That was the original first chapter. None of the Czechoslovak stuff was in the book. I just wasn't sure how I was going to end the book.
How long were you on that book?
Oh man, off and on, probably a decade almost. It was a real labor of love.
It's almost a mystery—it's a memoir, but it attempts to solve a mystery.
I found that really intriguing, and it seems to be one method of organization. The other thing, of course, is Heart of Darkness—Conrad's novel almost haunts the book.
Yes, true enough. But a lot of My Grandfather's Book I discovered as I was writing—I discovered my direction as I was going. That was the thrill of writing that book. It was like a mystery, sort of—I mean, who was this guy, really? I have those few memories of when I spent summers on his farm, and then I have what people tell me. I'm mulling over these few things that I know and these few comments that have been given to me, and it occurred to me as I was writing the book that it was, in some ways, a book about the imagination. If I had sat down one day and said to myself, "I'm going to write a book about a relative of whom I know almost nothing," how far would I get? So the imagination has to enter, sooner or later.
You mentioned that during the summers when you were young, you followed your grandfather around a lot, but that you really didn't talk much.
Right. But I felt close to him in an odd kind of way, a way that I didn't understand—of course I was just a kid, so I was not trying to articulate that to myself. To me, as I remember, those were the summers that I was eight, nine, and ten—and he was, to me, an unusual man. I had other relatives who were farmers, and they didn't behave like he did. I remember taking his horses down to the creek for a drink and watching him with them. I remember going out into the orchard for hours at a time and looking at the sky. I remember the hay wagon, and how we rode tight circles around my grandmother when she came out from the house.
And your grandfather had his book.
Yep. He opened a book every night. No man in my family, that I remember, ever opened a book. So the few images that I have of the guy are powerful, and they stuck, and you notice that I repeat them in the book, almost like a refrain in a poem. It's an odd kind of book. I had trouble selling that book.
I didn't have trouble reading it.
Thank you. But it doesn't fit into an easy category. I mean Chuck and I, my agent, we got into a divorce over it.
He wanted it marketed a certain way?
Yeah, he wanted me to change some basic directions. Like, for example, he would send it out, and one publisher would say, "Well, we like the story about you in Czechoslovakia and your daughter an all that, but we're not all that taken with your grandfather." And another publisher would say, "Cut it in half and give us the half about your grandfather." So it was back and forth like that. I guess it was reassuring that half the publishers liked one half of the book, and the other publishers liked the other half, but we weren't getting anywhere. Chuck was getting frustrated, but I knew that the two parts had to go together. My grandfather and I had so much in common. We both moved from the city to the country. We're both immigrants. I think all writers are immigrants, in a sense. Writers are always speculating and imagining, wondering, trying things out.
And trying to write the truth?
You mean "making" the truth versus "telling" the
truth? The book is also a depiction of that. In My Grandfather's Book I
do both, or, at least, I try to marry those two. The book is a real Romance,
with a capital "R." It's not just the romance of a man and a woman,
but it's the romance of relationships and the romance of the human spirit and
the romance of the journey—trying to get from here to whatever we need to
find. Earlier I said that I feel that my grandfather might be like me. Well, he
is probably as much or more like the narrator in
Heart of Darkness, like Marlow.
And in Heart of Darkness there is the river, and neither Marlow nor the reader is really sure of where it is going. Do you feel that way a lot when you're telling a story? As a writer, do you find that—like with My Grandfather's Book—you don't know where you are going to go with a book? Does that happen quite a bit?
Yes—absolutely—I almost never know.
Is that always the case?
Yep. I think so—at least in some sense. When I hear other writers say that writing is an act of discovery, a journey, I go, "Yeah, that's right—that's what I've been doing." At one point in the book I quote Conrad, paraphrase and quote him, and I say, "I'm not interested in the exact number of blackened bones clacking in a skeleton—I'm interested in the imperfections, contradictions, and mysteries of the human heart." And, really, that is Conrad, and that seems to me a far, far more valuable thing to pursue.
Even if you can't find it?
Even if you can't find it—but, of course, you must try.
What's the most frustrating part of that? I mean, discovery is what you do—and you enjoy doing that—but at the same time, what's the most frustrating part of that search?
Well, frustration is a given, and rather than be set back by frustration, I use it. I dance with it. I incorporate it into the project. I have known from the beginning of my writing career that frustration is part of the bargain, and I never let it stop me. I feel fueled by it sometimes.
How many times have you doubted that bargain—your choice in pursuing a writing career?
No, I've never doubted that I would pursue this line of work. My biggest frustration has come from certain editors who didn't know what I was up to, but even then I never dwelled on it. I never went around and beat my head against a wall. I've never got drunk and decided, "Well, to hell with them." No, you kind of roll with it. And I think this attitude comes from being an athlete. All athletes know that you don't win all the time—that a lot of the time you miss. Having been a baseball player, I take great consolation in knowing that I can fail. I could fail seven times out of ten and still hit three hundred, right? Ted Williams failed seven out of ten, and he's in the hall of fame. And, of course, there is the practice analogy.
You have to like practice.
Yeah, you have to like practice. You have to like rewriting. You find that there's something you want to say, but it's foreign and you're not quite getting it. You're not quite getting it, but you can't leave it alone because you know there's something good in there, maybe, and you find yourself coming back to it. Sometimes I'll get those real good chills when I say to myself, "This is pretty good!" More often than not I'll just get to a point where I say, "This is the best I can do." Then I move on. I think I got into this stance by working five years on my first novel, rewriting it completely every year, seeing how it was getting better, learning things. But after five years I realized that it would probably never be as good on the page as it was in my head, and so I just had to chalk it up as practice, experience, learning.
What did you do with that novel?
I put it in a drawer.
Do you use parts of it?
Oh yea, I've used it. Most of the parts that I've published, I've published as poems.
What was the novel about?
Oh, it was great! It was a novel about a sensitive young man living in Detroit, writing his first novel (laughter).
A sensitive young man who had a lot ahead of him to practice? (laughter)
It deserved to get put into a drawer, but the point is that I really did learn how to write. I never took any creative writing class. The first creative writing class that I entered was one I was to teach. I learned how to write by reading. That's what I tell students. The best teachers are stories, poems, novels, and memoirs, written by other people. Go to the library. I mean, a good writing teacher can function as a prop and can save you some time, but it all starts with you and getting that bug—that infection—and then reading and becoming further infected and further inspired.
So it is a virus?
Yeah, it's something like a virus. It's something that nobody can give you. Well, the analogy breaks down, doesn't it? Somebody can give you a virus. But whatever that thing is that a writer has—that strangeness—it cannot be taught. You have it yourself, in some right. Other writers, a teacher perhaps, can nourish it, can nudge it. But the writer really has to find it—it's a lot about feeling and observation.
So, do you pick up a lot of lines just in the speech you hear around you?
Oh yeah, I do. I've never been one to carry a notebook around with me and write things down, but the ones that stick I remember; and then later on, when I am in front of a piece of paper and have a pencil in my hand, I write them down. Of course, sometimes they don't stick.
But you don't, necessarily, keep a journal of all those things? You just let them stick in your mind and come out later?
For the most part, yeah, but again, it depends. It's interesting how sometimes we as writers fall into something that we don't recognize right away. It was that way with The Warsaw Sparks. I didn't recognize the story possibilities of coaching a baseball team in Poland right away. When I did recognize that there might be something there to write about, I thought in terms of a novel. I sent a letter to my then fiction editor, Shannon Ravenel and told her what I was doing. It was Shannon who suggested nonfiction. She wrote back right away, "No, no, just tell it straight. It's interesting enough to tell it straight."
That was good advice?
Yeah, it was—so I did. That's a good sign of a great editor—her first instinct was right. I wrote it in longhand of course. I just had a pencil and scraps of paper, and some of the scraps of paper were the backs of score sheets. It was a messy-looking manuscript, but it turned out to be a good one.
Yes. In fact, some great work came out of your residence in Poland and later, now, in Idaho. How do you see your writing in relationship to place?
It doesn't seem to matter. Wherever I am, I seem to find things that interest me, fascinate me, or puzzle me. Of course in a foreign setting things are automatically, or by definition, more interesting, or at least they get my attention because I have to look more closely—right? Simple things like getting from here to there become larger than they are where you can get from here to there easily. I've enjoyed traveling, and I've enjoyed making my poems, stories, memoirs and novels as I go. When I travel I have to put things together in order to function. As I said earlier, I'm not interested in "telling" the truth—I don't think all writers are—but I am interested in "making" the truth, constructing truth. Maybe when I live abroad—and I've lived abroad a lot—in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Paris, Scotland Mexico, Spain—maybe I observe more—maybe I try harder. I don't know if I've been attracted to these places because they are fresh material—places where fresh material can be found—or if I'm just naturally a kind of vagabond. When I go there, I feel alive—creative. Perhaps it is foreignness of the place—the language—and I always try to use the local language—trying to make sense of things by asking, by making, by putting together, by structuring—perhaps it is this kind of "foreignness" that goes along with my particular personality. I love making the truth. I love a clean line. I love the simplicity of how a day moves and gathers the shadows and the sunlight, and how snowflakes will form patterns, and how rain sounds. I like to be around weather and natural sounds—natural bits and pieces that collect and make something. You know, I love all that. And I can find this at home, too.
So it is the gathering and connecting of things close to us that is significant.
Yes, I think so. They're timeless. They repeat themselves. They come back like good friends and good stories.
Like the kid on his tricycle bouncing off the bunker—trying, trying, trying again and again—having to get somewhere?
Yeah, once I get going, once I get thinking and talking about the bits and pieces that go into the making of a thing—what has been and what wants to be, the highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows—that is when I feel I am working. When I was very small, when I was a baby—I talk about this in My Grandfather's Book—my parents were burned out of their apartments. The apartments where we were living burned to the ground, and in a dramatic rescue, my mother saved me. It was in the winter time, and we needed a place to live in northern Michigan. My grandfather, who owned a lumber yard there, gave us a little apartment that he had built in the lumber yard for visiting salesmen, and that's where I grew up until I was in kindergarten. It seemed like we were there a long time. I have memories of climbing under a big, blue buzz-saw—when it was not in use, obviously—and I would pick up all these little pieces of wood—scraps and such—and I had my own hammer, of course, and it was easy to get nails—and I would just make things with those materials that were there for the taking. That may have been where it all started—wanting to make something. I wasn't that good of a carpenter as I grew up. As I grew up, I started to do things like playing ball—I liked sports a lot. I was always playing ball. People often ask if I play a musical instrument because I often talk about music, and I have to say, "No, I only played baseball, basketball, and football." I wish I would have paused long enough to learn how to read music and play the piano, but I never did. Anyway, making things, putting things together may have started with my grandfather's lumberyard. I still, to this day, love the smell of sawdust, the smell of fresh wood. I can work with wood. But like you, I'm not keen on fixing anengine. My dad was a master carpenter and a great mechanic. He could do both. I didn't have the patience, plus I didn't like the smell of engines or motors. I don't know why—I just didn't like it. But I love wood and all that goes with wood—being outdoors I love. Anyway, let me tell you a story about motors. Having grown up in Flint, Michigan, I was car crazy, of course, and I knew I had to have a car when I was sixteen, and I did—I got one…
What was it?
A forty-six Chevy. And it was a simple enough car that I could do things with it. In addition to changing a flat tire and the oil, I could change the spark plugs and do a few other things. But that may be the first and last car that I've ever owned that I could do things on. Anyway, young and in Flint, Michigan, owning a car was part of your manhood. I mean, if you didn't have a car and you were a male in Flint, well, you only had one testicle—you weren't complete, physically. So I had a car, and then I had another car. The next car I got was a fifty-one Chevy, and that was my last one until after college. I didn't have one in college. But I liked cars, and because I did like cars, I got into sports cars. The first real job I got in Detroit, I brought a new TR3—the last one they made, with the cut-down doors—and then from there I went to an Austin-Healey 3000—all leather and mahogany and "Vroom-Vroom." I had that Austin-Healey when I was teaching at Drake in the `60s. I put some good work in it, but I had a great mechanic downtown. He was so good and proud of his work that whenever he tinkered with the motor he wanted me to stand there and keep him company. And I understood. I didn't mind watching him work on that car, and I was somewhat interested. Well, one day in the fall of the year I took the car into the shop, and he had to do something that took a few hours, and he looked like he wanted me to stick around. It was a beautiful, painfully beautiful, autumn day in the Midwest. The doors were open, and I could see this beautiful day expire. I could see the shadows lengthening, and I'm standing there watching the mechanic working on my car. It stuck me hard that that day would never come again—that I was giving it up. I had made the choice to stay in there and watch some guy work on my engine. And I felt so stupid that when I drove home I searched in my desk for a card that one of the graduated students had sent me, a graduate student in pharmacy. Some of them had money—many of them were sons of people who owned pharmacy chains. Anyway, I knew he had money because he had called me up one day after he had seen my car, and he said, "If you ever want to sell that car, call me." So I did. The day had come. I called him up
You were missing your days.
I had missed my autumn day, and I felt ridiculous. So I called him up, and I said, "Do you still want to buy my car?" He said, "I do." He came over and wrote me a check. I didn't own another car for 17 years after that. I bought a bicycle, and whenever I needed a car—really needed a car—I rented one—and you could rent one very cheaply in those days. I was close enough to the university that I could walk or ride my bike. When we made trips, I rented a car. I didn't own another car until years later when I inherited a car from my in-laws and kept that for a while. Then when I decided to leave teaching and move up to Idaho, I knew I needed a vehicle, so I bought a pickup. I don't know what this all means, other than it contributes to my preference for walking and being outside under my umbrella.
You chose to leave teaching—to leave a tenured position.
Yeah, on paper I was there for 25 years. I went there in `66 and left in `91.
And you chose to go to Idaho—to live in the West—and you're not from the West.
Yeah, but I had done a preview. Even though on paper I was at Drake for twenty-five years, I was not there all that time. I took a lot of leave, either to go teach somewhere else as a visiting writer or, on my own nickel, to go live some place that I wanted to be. Like, for instance, I woke up one morning with the idea that I needed to live in Paris before I died—so I did. I saved enough money to live in Paris for a year, and I moved there and wrote. And I did that more than once in other places as well. I was gone two years to teach at Reed College. I had a visiting thing with Michigan State, two Fullbrights, a chair at Davidson College. So I was gone quite a bit from Drake.
But you chose Idaho.
But I chose Idaho because when I was teaching at Reed College in Portland in the mid `80s, I got around the Northwest quite a bit. I did some readings around the Northwest, including one in Idaho. I met some people, Wayne and Randy Paradis. Wayne is with the U.S. Fish & Game and Randy teaches high school English. We became friends—and I liked what I saw in Idaho. I thought that some day I would like to live in the mountains, by a river, where I could be close to the sky and to fishing and walking and clean air and quiet—and so that day came.
You felt that you could also work there?
I can't remember a place where I've lived where I've not been able to work. Even in those boxy, Soviet, spider-infested flats in Czechoslovakia, I was able to work. They were pretty quiet, except for the guy above me who would scream out sometimes in the middle of the night—the guy lived in his own mind. The only times I have not composed is when I'm on a reading tour. I mean, I can make notes, but I just don't compose much. But it's a good trade-off because I get to sit down and have a beer with people like you and other friends that I haven't seen in a while—and I get to talk with students. I like to talk with students—it gives me that little fix. I get to get away from my own little litter box, so to speak. And probably it allows me to re-appreciate where I am because I love getting back home, too.
Your work has given you some great experiences in a larger, more complex
sphere—moving around, seeing different places, people,
audiences, students—and yet, still, you can go home to a smaller, more limited world and be satisfied, even rejuvenated, by your work?
Absolutely, I have been able to get away with being a writer for almost forty years.
You sound like a naughty boy with his hand in the cookie jar.
I know I do. I know I do. But in a way in America that is almost the way it is. There are so many distractions, so many temptations, so many ways to make money and get off the writing bent. There are other ways of living your life that can make things happen. Starting in Detroit when I got out of college, I would come home from work at night, eat a little supper, have a couple of beers, go to bed right away, set the alarm clock for ten-thirty that same night, wake up and work from ten-thirty until two in the morning, go back to bed, get up, go to work in the morning. That was really hard, and I knew I couldn't do that forever. I did that for a year and a half until I got my first teaching job, and of course, when you first start teaching, you can't name your schedule, you can't call the shots. So I would work at nights and whenever I could. But once I started to publish and so forth, then I could make deals, and it wasn't long before I could teach in the afternoons and have my mornings free to work. That happened fairly soon because after that five-year period when I rewrote my novel several times—learned how to write—I published my first book of poems fairly quickly. And from that point on I could negotiate what schedule I thought would help me to write. Later I moved to Idaho, and I have not regretted giving up that academic position.
You're not missing those beautiful autumn days on campus?
No. No, I'm not. I have every one of them. I get up in the morning, have a little breakfast, go outside, and depending on the season, I either water my vegetable garden or my flower garden, which I've just started, or I just go outside and walk around a little bit. In the wintertime I walk through the snow, just getting a taste of the day. I see all kinds of tracks in the snow—I get a lot of wild animals around my place. Then I go back in, and I have the entire morning free to do what I want to do. Then I have a little lunch, and after I might take a little bit of a nap. Often, I go back out and split fire wood because I heat my whole place with a wood-burning stove. I might go fishing or go for a hike—I'm outside, physically, and I feel good.
I am thinking of your poem about the deer carcass and the cougar. If I don't miss my guess, you must have run into it on one of your walks near your home.
Oh yeah, yeah, all kinds of animals visit my place, including the "big cat." The first time I saw a cougar kill I was up repairing the corral, and it was late in the afternoon, and the sun was coming in through the trees, and it lit up this very red color about twenty yards from where I was standing—so I went over to see what it was. It was a freshly killed deer—freshly killed. I backed away from there in a hurry, and didn't go back until three days later. And when I did go back, that deer was all eaten, except for the hard parts. So there I was in my corral one day, on my hands and knees, pulling up some thistles, and I looked up, at one point, and six feet away was this cougar looking at me. That's where my poem, "The Cougar," comes from.
I was thinking how you began your career by being interested in short stories and novels, how you began by writing a novel, and then there was the nonfiction and recently your memoir—and they have all done well. But really, your first success was poetry. How did that come about?
At first, I saw myself strictly as a novelist. After writing and rewriting
my first novel from start to finish five times, I decided that what I wanted to
do was write a second novel. That first novel was great practice and a great
learning experience, and I know you can write about anything, and everything
depends on the treatment. But that first novel wasn't very promising, so I was
just going to stick it in a drawer and forget about it. I had a notion about
writing a second novel, but I was a little nervous about leaping into another
long project. I knew a novel was a big commitment. So to work up my courage I
decided to work on some short stories. I had written short stories as an
undergraduate, so I thought I knew something about writing short stories. I had
half a dozen ideas. I was very excited, and I very quickly summarized each of
these ideas on a sheet of paper. So I had six pieces of paper, each one with a
fat little paragraph typed on it. I placed these six sheets of paper on a table,
I started walking around the table, waiting for one of the paragraphs to speak to me—"Work on me! Expand me! I'm ready!" But none of them would speak to me, and I was frustrated. They were too short to be short stories, way too short. The notion of prose didn't get in my head, but what did get into my head was the notion of a poem. Poems are short, and here were these short pieces of text. I never had written a poem, except when I was an undergraduate and I wrote some for a girl who I was in love with and who loved poetry. I thought that this would be a way to solidify things with her. I had no real experience with writing poems. But I read poems—I loved poems. I read a lot of Whitman, Frost, Dickinson, Donne, and lots of other poets. I had a sense of what a poem ought to be. I knew I couldn't take those six paragraphs and arbitrarily chop those sentences into equal lengths of lines, and then just run them down the page and call it a poem—I knew it didn't work like that. So I worked at them, and finally I got what I thought were poems—looked like poems anyway. But here is the surprise—all six of those originals were taken by the first six magazines I sent them to. So I was a poet, and I was a little puzzled as well—but I was elated, too. So I wrote poems like crazy all that next year, two to three a day. Most of them were not very good, but now and again I'd get a good one, a keeper, and I continued to send them out. By spring I had enough for a book, so I sent them off to the University of Pittsburgh Press because I had seen a flyer in the library saying that their press was looking for first books of poems.
And this is still the series that is going on today?
Yeah, this is still the series that is going on today. They ended up publishing, so far, five of my books. They published that first one one in `69, the next one in `71, and then in`75, and '78. You know, "`Boom, Boom, Boom." So I'm a poet—but I'm still writing prose. I published, in 1983, my first collection of short stories, The Crush, from Ecco Press. Then in `87 I published my first novel and another collection of stories, simultaneously, with Algonquin. So, anyway, my pattern, I guess, is set—I am a poet who also writes stories, novels, and memoirs.
And you just take those as they come?
I work every day, and if I'm feeling that my poems are not going to go anywhere or if I discover as I'm writing that the lines keep getting longer and longer and want to be sentences, well, then I'll try to turn it into a story. That's how many of my stories come into being.
So some of your stories are failed poems, and some of your poems are interrupted stories?
Yep, and I have had texts go back and forth two or three times.
And how do you work with that?
Well, I have to decide one way or another, ultimately. I have a story called "Tornados." It's in my second collection, A Week in South Dakota, and I'm fond of that story—I like it. It is close to being a kind of poem. It's not a poem—it's prose—it's in sentences and paragraphs, but the feel of it reminds me a lot of the feel I get from certain poems. But it's a legitimate story. My novel first grew out of what I thought was going to be a short story—my published novel. I've got other novels that are not published. It will be very ironic if in the latter part of my career, I start publishing what I first started trying to publish.
Do you feel a need to do that?
Not particularly. My need is to write. My need is to tell a story, whether the story is in the form of a poem, a short story, a novel, or a memoir. My need is to engage myself with narrative. I think of many of my poems, not as poems but as short stories, although they are in lines and lyric. I think that may be why I had that initial success as a poet—I kept to a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even though I was working with a very small text, I wanted to be clear. Frost, Whitman, probably all the good poets are clear at the story line level. For the most part, there is not a great difficulty following what they are saying.
If you don't have a story, there's nothing to do about that, is there? That's where it starts—you have to have a story to tell.
And you have to have a certain kind of clarity. I knew instinctively, from the very beginning, that I didn't want my poems to be little puzzles that had to be figured out—I knew that. I wanted them to have a story to carry, to be direct, and then something else also, if they were good enough. Nobody is good enough to produce poem after poem after poem that is engaging on that first level, that story line level, and also have real depth. Nobody's that good. I mean, I think writers throw away a lot—I know I do. Young writers think that once you've achieved a certain level and published "X" number of books, then it's relatively easy. They think that most of the stuff you sit down to write, you finish. But it's not true—it's just not true. I am grateful if I can connect three times out of ten—very grateful.
And that's if you're exercising the discipline to do it.
Yeah, I've never really kept track, but I do know that I have a lot of worksheets that I never finished.
Do you keep them?
Yeah, many of them I do keep because every now and again I go back into a box or a shelf, and I find something in my notebooks. Every now and again I see myself really trying to make a poem, and I discover that I have finally been able to finish something that I started ten years ago. Also, I've become very aware of the junk that I've kept around because Michigan State University Library is collecting my papers—and they want everything. They want all worksheets and scribbles and grocery lists, envelopes, all that stuff.
How do you feel about that? I mean, is it flattering? Is it scary?
It is both—absolutely—you summarized it perfectly. It is flattering and it is scary. I have given them twenty boxes so far, and they've collected a variety of things: drafts of failed novels, worksheets, lots of failed poems, letters. They have a lot of stuff, but there is a lot more stuff that I'm keeping, holding back, because, who knows, I might want to write something from it. They will get it all, eventually.
I want to pursue this a little more. It's flattering I'm sure, but what do you think of someday some graduate student pouring over your work, interpreting your work in all kinds of unpredictable ways. What do you think of that?
It doesn't bother me—really, not at all. I remember, during my undergraduate and graduate days, I would go to the library, to the special collections, and I would feel affectionate. I used to look up things by writers—writers I admired—and I remember that my feeling was one of affection. I'm just assuming that anyone who would go into a writer's leftovers would do so, basically, out of affection. That may not always be true, but I think it's true more often than not. It was May West, who said something like, "I don't care what they say about me, as long as they don't quit." It's a cliche that one of the reasons writers want to write is because they want to stay alive long after they've left the planet.
Is that a thought that comes to you more now than when you began?
No, it comes up maybe in conversations like this, but I'm sure I've never sat down to work on a piece of writing and thought, "This will be a piece that will be read after I'm gone; therefore, I'll still be alive." At least I can't consciously remember any such occasion.
That would be a daunting task—if not a stupid one.
Yeah, I think so (chuckle).
Do you have rituals, quirks, things that you do that help you to write or prepare you to write?
I think the way I generally live my life is a ritual. I like to cook. I cook dinner in the evening, and after dinner I read. I get to bed at a reasonable time. I get up early and I have breakfast, and it's almost always the same thing: oatmeal with some nuts and fruit. Then I go outside and, as I said earlier, depending on the season, I do some things and spend generally twenty to thirty minutes out there. Then I go back in, pour my first cup of coffee, and go into my studio. I'm in my studio until noon. Then I come out and have lunch, maybe have a nap, but in any case I always get outside and do something in the afternoon that's physical. All of that is a kind of ritual. Further than that, I write on a clipboard. I put a regular piece of paper on a clipboard, and then I sharpen three or four pencils and start to write. Rituals can be powerful.
I wonder if you wouldn't mind describing what your studio looks like. What's in it? What's around you?
Well, it's on the first floor of my house. It's right across from the laundry room. The walls are all knotty pine or red fir. My desk is the same desk that I made when I arrived in DesMoines in 1966. It is a piece of plywood about six feet long and three feet deep, and it has a little trim so that I don't get a sliver from the edges of the plywood. I put a kind of shellac on it, a kind of a sealer. That's the only time I've ever done anything to it—maybe I put two coats on it. And the space where I write is a little worn away—the shellac is a little worn away. On that desk I have my old Smith-Corona portable, which is off to the side. I have two stacks of paper—I have a stack of good paper, and I have a stack of paper that has a good side to it, that is to say, it has already been used for something. For example, I'm on the board of Head Start. I'll keep the minutes from the Head Start meeting, and I'll take that paper home, and I'll take the paperclip out, and I'll add that to my worksheet pile. Years ago, when I was in Catholic school, in Flint, Michigan, the nuns taught us to not waste paper—so I don't waste paper. The MSU library will get a lot of pieces of paper from me with a lot of odd things on the other side of them. Sometimes on the other side of these sheets are poems from contests that have been sent to me to be judged, or stories that have been sent to me to read for competitions. So I use a lot of other people's typescripts, or computer scripts, if there is such a term. I have an ashtray, of course, on the desk. I have a couple of mugs with pencils in them. I have a little mess down at the far end with letters that I need to answer and little scraps of this and that—so there's that little continuum mess down at the far end, to the right. To my immediate left there's a window that looks down on to my orchard and beyond to the Gospels—the mountain range. Behind me is a file cabinet with letters and copies of finished stories and poems that I keep in there. I have a bookcase back there with lots of anthologies. I have a seventeen-century chest-of-drawers, one of the few antiques that I have—I found it in Iowa. One drawer is full of letters that I go through from time to time—organize them, send them to the library, or just re-read them. Another drawer has things like papers that I need to refer to—documents, birth certificates, and insurance, that sort of thing. I have another set of shelves that I built that sits where a big closet would be, but I took the doors off the closet so that I could make my studio bigger. I have a lot of manuscripts on those shelves—a lot of books. I have another set of shelves, glassed in, where I keep some pretty nice books and some photographs. On the wall, I've got the sword that they gave me in Warsaw—when I left, the guys on the baseball team gave me a sword. There are a number of photographs on the walls. I have pictures of my children and grandchildren. I have a still from the Misfits of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.
Do you like that movie?
Well, I like Marilyn Monroe. In this photo she has her cheek on Clark's
arm, his lower arm. She's sort of resting it there. He's giving her some
comfort. I don't think that it's a scene from the movie. Actually, I think it's
from the production—some moment that some
body captured when the two of them were resting.
Your photographs are mostly of people?
Mostly people—mostly my daughters, Margaret and Gretchen—and Gretchen's children, my grandchildren. I have a photograph given to me by Red Shuttleworth, the writer. It's a beautiful photograph of two boxers at the turn of the century, maybe 1910, with all their handlers in the background. It's a great old photograph. Red found it in San Francisco. I've got baseball shots—I've got a picture of Willie McCovey swinging the bat. I've got a record, an actual seventy-eight RPM of the song "Sleepy Time Gal" that was given to me as a gift because of my short story of the same name.
And it's hanging there?
It's framed. The person who gave it to me made it part of a little collage. It's in the original wrapper, although the wrapper has been torn. In the olden days when you bought a seventy-eight, it would have a paper wrapping on it, the sleeve. It has part of the sleeve, but it's nicely torn. It's kind of interesting how it's torn. The person who gave it to me copied out, on that sleeve, the beginning of my story and framed the whole thing—so that's on the wall. And there is the photograph of my grandfather, the one I use in My Grandfather's Book—it's in black and white. When I found that photo, I was elated. I was delighted and I was also confused—as I say in the book, "This doesn't look like the guy I remember, not at all." The things about him that I do remember—the scars, the changing colors on his skin from that accident that he suffered—are not visible in the photograph.
And the accident was some kind of fire?
Well—and I say this in the book—my mother says she can remember when Pa came home from work and he was burned. One person says it was in the foundry, somebody else says, "No, it was from when he worked on the railroad, from the steam." My cousin Leonard, who ran away from high school to LA to be a movie star, who was a handsome guy, and who you would think would be very conscious of how people look, he says, "What scars? I don't remember any scars." All of that contributes to the mystery, the complexity, and the wonderful illusiveness of human perception
And of what is true and what is made up.
Yeah, that's a big question, isn't it? What's true? It's a wonderful question. We all love the truth. We all subscribe to the notion of truth, and we all have ideas about it. We all tinker with it, in one way or another.
We often think we have a monopoly on it.
We often think we have a monopoly on it, especially when we are in an argument with someone—an argument that we really want to win. We know, if we've studied things and read, that if two people are having a fierce argument, they can both be right and both be wrong.
A John Cheever story can tell us that, can't it?
I love John Cheever. Yep, John Cheever's on my list. I've re-read John Cheever many times. "The Swimmer" is one of those great short stories. There was a period in Marquette, 1963 to 1966, that I spent a lot of time in the Peter White Library—it had all the O' Henry collections, The Best Stories of the Year, and all of The Best American Short Stories, and I went through every copy. I read every story in there. One of the things I was trying to do was to learn how to write a novel by reading short stories. I wanted a good example of how a narrative flows through the arc—you know, the beginning, rising toward the change, the climax, and the resolution. I, of course, read novels too. I read a lot in Marquette.
You were reading all these short stories to get a sense of the narrative for a novel? Did the short stories just seem more manageable and easier to look at?
Yeah, and I could get a lot of different points of view, a lot of different angles, a lot of different things. I could read ten or fifteen short stories in the time that it would take me to read a novel. Also, I love stories, and it was a nice way to spend some time.
Can you finish a novel—find the ending of a novel—in the same way that you get to the ending of a short story, or does the length or complexity of the novel demand more planning or attention? What is your experience with that?
I don't know if other writers feel this way or not, but I want to write a novel in almost the same way that I write a poem or a short story. I want it to be tight. In a poem you've got to pay attention, and in a story you've got to pay attention. In a poem, everything that doesn't contribute ought to be excised. I feel that way about a novel, which is one of the reasons I've only published one novel so far. I've written four but I've only published one because it is the only one that I've felt is close enough to what I want the novel to be. I don't want it to be a poem, but I want it to have some of the music that some of the great novels have, like Heart of Darkness, and even Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Great Gatsby, The Stranger. That kind of intensity and lyricism is the way I want to write a novel—and the way I do write a novel. Now, the story you are going to publish [page 24] about the former writer of romance novels has a longer version, but it's the only one that I have like that.
You were not as satisfied with the longer version?
Well, it's the same character, but in the longer version what I have done is I have Ramona and one of the men in her life, really the only man that really mattered to her, much more connected. She is in control of the whole novel because what she has done is taken his letters and alternated them with her chapters. He writes a letter to her, and she responds to it. She will take off a little bit and do a little riff on his letters or his journal entries. It was interesting because at one point it was all her letters, and at one point it was all his letters. I went back and forth, and now as I'm talking and thinking about this, I can't straighten it out, which is a good sign because it suggests to me that it is a lively idea. I'll find out. I have to do a couple more things to it before I'll let it go and try to publish it in its novel form.
Well, I know right now you're putting together a New and Selected Stories, and you're wrestling with how to put that together.
Yeah, the next book. I've winnowed down the possibilities. I've got about fifty published stories, and I've settled on twenty-four, but I think that number's going to change, just a little bit. Just before I left for this tour, I had a phone conversation with my publisher, and she wants two stories that have never been published before included. This goes against my general leaning, which is to publish as much as possible before I put it in book cover. I do have two unpublished, and I've sent them to her—we'll see.
How many of the "selected" stories are selected by you? How does that work?
I put together the whole thing. I put it together because I wanted to tamper with it. It wasn't all that hard. First of all, I started with the stories that had previously appeared in The Crush and A Week in South Dakota, two previous collections. I only took one from The Crush, and that's "Sleepy Time Gal," which is my most anthologized story. I took seven from A Week in South Dakota. I chose one, "Somewhere Geese are Flying," which won the National Magazine Award for Fiction—it gives the collection its title. I selected five that were on the honor roll for the Best American Short Stories for whatever years they were—I think two in '87, two in '88, and maybe one in `89. They select about twenty that they reprint, and then in the back of the book they list a number of other distinguished stories. So I selected five that had made that honor roll, and then a couple of others that I liked.
Do you worry about them being representative in any way? Are they still as captivating today as when you wrote them?
Yes, all of that, all of that. First of all, I like each of them a lot. But they do fit in with the other stories; they are relevant today, and they've received some attention.
You're concerned, I'm sure, about which one comes first, which one second, and so on—how you organize the stories.
Right. There is that old Robert Frost quote that goes something like, "If there are twenty poems in a book, the book makes the twenty-first poem."
And you're paying close attention to that?
I think that one of the things that distinguishes successful writers from unsuccessful writers is the ability to adopt or to embrace, or to choose—and I belive it is a choice— what I am going to call the writer's life, whatever definition you might give to that. What has that life given you that you hold most dear?
That's a good question. I have organized my life ever since I got out of college so that I could write, and I did that because I knew—without being able to articulate it, at least in the beginning—that writing would matter to me deeply. I don't know if it would matter to me more than a human relationship or a child—I don't think it does. I say that I don't think it does because it's possible for me to love my daughters and writing at the same time. I don't want to have to say that one is more important than another because I have done many things in order to continue to be a writer. Writing matters to me a great deal—and I have managed not to give up.
What is it that the writer's life has taken from you?
I don't know. It has given me more than it has taken—far more, far more. I mean I could tell you, for example, that my German grandfather started a lumberyard and made quite a bit of money and lost a lot of it to an embezzlement, and then he died shortly thereafter. My grandmother maintained that having lost this large sum of money is what killed him. He still had quite a bit of money left, but he had made his money during the Depression. My grandmother lived into her nineties. All the grandchildren and great-grandchildren on all of our birthdays and on Christmas would get a check from Grandma—no letter, no note, just an envelope with our name on it and a check inside, written in her little chicken scratch. And over the years she herself lost money to her so-called financial advisors. And I pictured this skinny, nervous woman sitting over a cash register, kind of hovering over it, protecting this cash register. I tell you this story because I knew growing up that money was significant, and I also could see how it could affect me in ways that I didn't want to be affected. My grandfather used to deliver lumber, and he would take me with him. After delivering a load we would stop and pick up some ring bologna, crackers, and a soda—he'd get a beer. We would take our goods into the woods, find a nice place, take off our shoes, and have a little picnic—often take a snooze. He loved that. In many ways he and his relatives had an easy life—hunting and fishing and all that. Then, on my other side, my Polish grandfather never had a lot of money—ever—but still he seemed to have an interesting life as well as an interest in it. Anyway, the point is that I learned that an interesting life does not necessarily require a lot of money. One of the things I have managed not to do over the years is pursue a lot of money. I want a certain amount so that I can write. I don't want to be worried about somebody coming to take my roof from me, but I don't think I ever wanted to be in a position where I could make a lot of money but in return I would have to sacrifice writing. This is not to say I'm not happy when someone pays me a lot of money for a piece of writing—I am. But I don't sit down to make money when I write. None of that gets in the way. So those are some of the ways I would respond to that great question—I'm basically a happy man.
It has given you more than it has taken
Oh yeah, absolutely. Writing has given me a great, great deal. It has taken away some things, which I regret and I'm sorry about—very sorry about. But you can't have everything—you can't hit every time. But you need to leave yourself a little room—be ready for your pitch. At least that's what I try to do.
Do you feel good enough about what you see in contemporary writing?
Yeah I do, I do. There are enough people, young and old and in between, who care about things that matter—and who will care enough to record it.
And that's what writing is?
And that's what writing is.