New NYTBR essay, and George Saunders interview outtakes

I have a new essay in The New York Times Book Review this Sunday. I really enjoyed writing this one. Thank you to Justin Torres, Jennifer Haigh, Laurie Halse Anderson, Justin Cronin, Elizabeth Gilbert, Allison Amend, Kate Christensen, Mary Karr, Margot Livesey, Tobias Wolff, and George Saunders for speaking with me for the piece. They are all lovely, lovely people. Even if they refused to sit on my lap.

George Saunders kindly agreed to let me post the outtakes from our interview, which was conducted via email (the other interviews were by phone). Here they are:

How has learning more about favorite authors’ lives affected the way you read their work?
GS: Not so much, really. I think there’s that temptation – to say, you know, “Oh Writer Z was a great person, and I can feel that in her books,” or “Writer Q was such an asshole, and his books are thereby disgraced by association” – but I think this is a false position.

I understand a work of fiction as distillation or rarefication of the writer’s personality – the writer at his or her best – at his or her purest, most intense, most iconic. Or at any rate – let’s say we have to, as sophisticated readers, disconnect the producer and the product. So a writer who might be (insert negative or positive quality) in real life, has the chance to either winnow that quality out of the piece of writing – or exaggerate it in such a way as to make it a virtue. The work of art is a way of distorting/reshaping the writer’s personality, then. The writer consents to this and longs for it.

We’d also want to take into account the fact that even a given writer is a vast number of people in her life. There’s not one stable individual producing all that work – instead we might see a book as just a manifestation of who she was at that particular artistic moment. So the real thing is not, who “was” this person and what is the relation of this fixed thing called “her art” – but rather, how did that flickering personality happen to produce, at that particular time, this particular distortion/utilization of itself?

Another way of saying this: we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the temporary manifestation we call “a person” is any more real or stable than the temporary manifestation we call “a book.” Both are temporary constructions, accidents of conditions and circumstances and so on. Was Hemingway the same guy all of his life? No, and each book could be seen as the intersection of two ornery trajectories: the personal (who was he as a person at that moment?) and the artistic (what was his subconscious doing, how fine were his skills at that moment?)

Having said that, I do think that personality figures into the process in an interesting way, expecially in a writer’s best work. What you see at that high elevation is something like: embodiments of various sorts of human greatness. So I feel, for example, that Chekhov was kinder, less bombastic and cocksure, more pragmatic, than Tolstoy. Which is a form of greatness. But Tolstoy had a personal strictness and confidence, and a wide scope of aspiration, and a desire for large spiritual truths, that Chekov didn’t – and this is also a form of greatness.

Or we might feel certain writers (when they are at their best) to be embodiments of certain virtue-sets: I feel Flannery O’Connor as the perfect embodiment of, say, ultra-honest crankiness; Nabakov as the perfect embodiment of style-as-ethos; Hemingway as embodiment of courage in the midst of disaster; Gogol as the perfect embodiment of jester-wisdom, and so on.

In this it’s like singing, maybe: when Billie Holiday sings, what’s the relation of that voice to her “real” self? I think we’d have to say: it’s a distilled and edited version that is somehow both completely her – and better than her. Or: is her most purely.

I think we also feel personality in a writer’s weakest works – when he or she has let some personality quirk or “belief” dominate the mix in a sort of monotonic way – some of Hemingway’s more swagger-heavy novels come to mind, for example.

Another writer I interviewed said, “When you see the man behind the curtain you no longer believe in the puppet show.” Do you think that’s true? Should the man behind the curtain stay behind the curtain?

GS: I used to feel that way, when I was younger, but now I’m not sure. It’s a lot to ask of a person, to stay behind the curtain, you know? Now when I see the writer come out, I just think: Oh, there’s the guy who made that puppet show. And am able to ask: How did I like that show, apart from the fact that the guy who made it was drunk and abusive and is dragging a piece of toilet paper around on one of his special “puppet show” shoes? Or apart from the fact that he was SO nice, and gave me fifty dollars while praising me, and has absolutely no toilet paper on his (beautifully shined) shoe?

We could see a work of art as the artist trying to use the advantage of time and process to get beyond his negative qualities…

Why do you think readers have this desire to know more about our favorite authors’ lives?

GS: I think it’s totally natural. We have a powerful experience at the puppet show and wonder: who’s back there, and how did he DO that? But at that point, we’ve already had the show. We’ve seen him at his best. I don’t think it hurts or helps much, to see him come out – if the show was great, the show was great. His appearance or behavior doesn’t change that, I don’t think. Or shouldn’t. But we maybe idealize artists and think: if she did that great thing, she must be the (constant, unerring) embodiment of that form of greatness – which, when you think about it, discounts the difficulty and intensity of the making.

Who are your literary heroes? Have you read a biography of any of them, or met them in person? What was the experience like? Did learning more about who they were enhance their work or detract from it?

GS: I think learning something about the “real” person can be helpful for a writer, especially a young writer, when he is trying to understand the alchemy between “person” and “work.” Reading Vonnegut’s letters, you can see the warmth and wit and also the very real way in which his experiences in the war made him impatient with unkindness. He wasn’t faking or contriving that. That was authentic. I also like the fact that Gogol was apparently sort of a nutjob – once fell asleep during a lecture he was delivering, had a nose-obsession (and an insanely long nose), was terrified of leeches, his mother routinely claimed that he had invented the locomotive, he became a complete and hectoring and arrogant religious fanatic at the end of his life, etc., etc. – and yet, my God, those stories! So – he’s a great reminder that the relation between talent and personality is mysterious and not linear, and that, at the highest level, the writer’s job is to exploit his personality, in whatever way is most interesting – and that this may be, and probably should be, beyond the control of his will.

Is it strange to meet readers who have some impression of you from your work? Is it ever a false impression?

GS: I think they mostly think I’m a better person than I am. Which gives me something to try and live up to.

 

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