Daniel Woodrell (The Bat Segundo Show #517)

Daniel Woodrell is most recently the author of The Maid’s Version.

Author: Daniel Woodrell

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Subjects Discussed: Twists within Woodrell’s fiction, Thelonious Monk, mysterious narrators, William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, The Flaming Corsage and Very Old Bones as deeply underrated novels, the snapshot montage approach to presenting history through fiction, how general observations identify people who lived 85 years before, the cemetery as the ultimate marker of memory, the novelist’s obligation to history, why it’s important to explore perspectives foreign to your own, Tomato Red as the creative turning point for Woodrell, the close connections between heightened language and heightened perspective, how respect for a town manifests itself in unusual ways, Ozark vernacular, referring to a cop as “John Law,” “Parmesan” vs. “sprinkled cheese,” consulting the OED, food in Woodrell’s novels, tasty variants of Depression stew, fatback, what people get wrong about stew, hack stew, prostitution, how Woodrell cultivated his knowledge of hookers, junior high school crushes who turn into hookers, people who manipulate others, knowing most of humanity by living in a small town, why there isn’t street crime in the Ozarks, crime that occurs among acquaintances, criminal strangers who lurch into tough guy mode, fighting against the cliche of the guy who wants an easy fight in a small town, Tony Danza’s boxing skills, why it’s important to lose fights, testifying against your cousin, how to create distinctive characters, Plug’s character in The Maid’s Version, families who accept aberrant behavior within kin, not prying into other people’s business, regional literature defined by acceptance of strange behavior, how reading Southern literature tilts real-life concerns, feeble attempts to deny knowledge of William Faulkner, the appeal of Cormac McCarthy’s darker novels, The Bayou Trilogy, Ed McBain’s Isola, how home life is defined in Woodrell’s novels, being more aware of the exterior of homes rather than the interior, reading novels as a way of knowing other regions, Comte de Lautréamont’s knowing narrator style, how illusion creates energy, the urge to feel uncertain, how shaky sales creates creative freedom, the decline of book review sections, why publishers believed in Woodrell with a terrible sales track, disasters and population ratios, the effect of a dance hall explosion on a small town vs. the Boston Marathon bombing, when larger cities don’t always comprehend the impact of disasters, why small towns permit more speculation than metropolitan clusters, the comforts of seemingly conscious forces, grief and belief culture, Woodrell’s abandoned San Francisco novel, why San Francisco didn’t work as a setting for Woodrell, Eddie Muller and the Noir City Film Festival, the joys of film noir, Woodrell’s Vietnam novel, Woodrell’s past experience as a Marine, antiwar protests, growing to accept the necessity of certain types of civil disobedience, false promises from the military, and fiction writing and political impulses.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We’ve seen twists in your books before. I think of the brutal Civil War swap that opens up Woe to Live On. I think of the relationship revelation after that house break in Tomato Red. But in this book [The Maid’s Version], you have been extremely opaque about the narrator’s identity to the point of, I will confess, mild frustration. But then I started to get into what you were doing. I’m wondering why this opacity, along with the fragmented sense of history, more your style this time around. I’m wondering if this was a formal exercise to see how much material you could pack into a 165 page novel.

Woodrell: Well, I didn’t want to turn it into being about him so much directly. I wanted him to be in a position to know a lot of things and to observe things and to report things. In many ways, this book has a style that would fit nonfiction. Quite a bit of it. And that was also by design. Because I had felt that he was trying to relay fiction. And so I wanted him to be a little bit outside. He’s not the most important person in the book, or even very important. Just as a messenger of the story. And I did really wrestle with this book in terms of what size to make it. I tried to initially make it a big fat one and include everyone in it. It just got out of shape so badly that I essentially threw it away. I eventually realized, “Just The Maid’s Version. Just get down to the bone. To the part that really matters to you.” Or as Thelonious Monk once said, “Just play the notes you really mean.” And I kind of took that to heart here. Just played the notes I really meant.

Correspondent: When you say this was going to be “a big fat one,” what were the original drafts looking like? I mean, you say that you were reporting here. And I’m wondering, given the economy of the final product so to speak, how expansive did you get here?

Woodrell: Well, there were a lot of different rumors about what may have or may not have happened. There were a lot of different players who could have come into the picture briefly or at more length. Even the little bios of some of the victims were originally quite a few pages a piece. And it began to lose shape and focus and it wandered too much for me. And that’s a little bit depressing sometimes. When you get to page 100 and something and you say, “I think I can use ten of these.”

Correspondent: By the way, can we actually confess the narrator’s name? I guess we can.

Woodrell: Yeah. His name is…

Correspondent: Alek.

Woodrell: Alek. He is named a few times.

Correspondent: He is. He is. I didn’t know the extent of spoilers. I’ve seen reviews do this. So he’s Alek. Out of the bag.

Woodrell: And there have been people who read it and didn’t catch his name. They didn’t know he had a name. No, he is named.

Correspondent: Yes.

Woodrell: It didn’t occur to me. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did this book start with Alek? How did the reporting and how did the wrestling with history become such a part of this book? We can talk about the fire that is actually a real dance hall fire in 1928 that is also in this book. So what caused your imagination to wander into this factual milieu?

Woodrell: Well, I’d heard about this ever since I was old enough to be told this kind of detail. And I eventually began to learn there were a lot of versions or rumors about what might or might not have happened. And the very first time I attempted to get into this, it was omniscient and there was no Alek and there was no particular focus on the Dunahew family. It was going to be pretty tightly — there was a Wiliam Kennedy book I liked. A lot of other people didn’t seem to.

Correspondent: Which one? Very Old Bones?

Woodrell: The Flaming Corsage. And Very Old Bones. Both of them.

Correspondent: Very Old Bones, I feel, is very underrated.

Woodrell: I think it is too. I really like that. I love Kennedy. Period. So I’m not really capable of being unbiased toward him. But I liked that a lot. And I felt like it moved a certain story through history rather well and it certainly kept me going.

Correspondent: So his montage nature, I think, in that book appealed to you for this?

Woodrell: Yeah. It did.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. That totally makes sense.

Woodrell: So originally it was going to be here’s the maid for a minute and then here’s someone else and here’s someone else, and they’re all linked together. And the story would expand from there and go forward. But slowly over a period of time, I realized that the personal part of it, the Dunahew family’s interior relationship to this, was fundamental to me really. I just hadn’t recognized how important that part of it was to me. And it began to seem to me that that was the way to go into this.

Correspondent: I’m curious. At what point did the dance hall start to inform the snapshot approach? Was it more the dance hall? Or the Kennedy book The Flaming Corsage?

Woodrell: Well, you go around town talking about the real event, you get little snippets. And a number of the victims are remembered by one thing that was notable about them or that was often reported. “She played the piano” or “He was a good ballplayer.” Or something like that. And so over a period of time, these characters, as they’re discussed, are sitting around time with other citizens. They begin to have the one, two, or three things that have stuck about them in the minds of the people there. And I began to realize, “Yeah, that’s right. There are certain essential qualities of people that linger for 85 years. They should live here.” So that kind of informed those. And I definitely wanted the victims to be brought forward somehow. And I didn’t want it all to just be thirty-five people walking toward the dance or something like that.

Correspondent: Sure. So you felt a responsibility to imbue the victims with some kind of identity as opposed to being random names. This brings me to the cemetery, which forms a serious part of this book. I mean, Alma always ends her walks there, we learn at the very beginning. But then we learn about the dance hall owner, whose past is actually revealed through the cemetery. A lot of his associations. And I was wondering first and foremost, well, did you wander around the cemetery yourself looking for leads here? Or was this kind of a way for you to remind both the readers and also to imbue the town with additional life? I mean, here is this marker of memory. All these people have died. And you can’t escape your legacy. I mean, what was the appeal of this?

Woodrell: Well, by an accident of just chance, a fair portion of my family are buried only about fifteen feet from the memorial. So all my life, when we’d go over to put the flowers down for Memorial Day and so forth, I’d think, “What’s this?” And then slowly that would develop. And then also, by happenstance, a number of the people who were identified are also buried near there. That was the section of the cemetery that was then being filled. So as I began learning more and more of the names of the people who were actually relevant to the event, I began to realize, “Oh! They’re all planted around here.” So that very fact resonated with me. I’m not…I never say what happened. Because I don’t know what happened. I chose a story that really rang for me and went with it. But I could walk around town and find a number of people who are still debating a lot of different angles that I never really suggested.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask. What obligation do you really have to history? I mean, this isn’t your first historical novel. You explored the Kansas Irregulars in the Civil War novel. In this, you’re dealing with something that’s a little bit more local than that — and also your family history. I mean, the Civil War — even the Kansas Irregulars — offers a really wide canvas for the imagination to bristle. But in this, you’re dealing with something that is so hyperlocal that I wonder if you have any problems bending the truth as fiction requires or whether you run with the actual basis and let things go into place from there.

Woodrell: Well, none of the people who were allegedly in the periphery of this or maybe even toward the center of it appealed to me as members of the community and as historical figures, but not as fictional characters. I didn’t feel drawn to write about people with some of the characteristics that these rumored individuals actually presented. And I specifically didn’t want to write about the wealthy in town sitting around twisting their mustaches thinking of villainy to perpetrate upon the lower classes.

Correspondent: Was there a real banker?

Woodrell: There was a banker who was sometimes mentioned as having had something involved maybe. But he was a much more dangerous kind of guy and a relentless skirt chaser and all that. Not the character that I found myself writing about. It was in the same way that I ended up writing about the Southern bushwhackers instead of the Northern [in Woe to Live On]. I had originally started out to write a book about the Northern. And then I realized that that was actually a little too easy for me to inhabit that sensibility. And it was more of a stretch for me politically and as a person to try to get inside the other side and what was making them tick. So I wanted this character to be someone that it would be more of a surprise if he were accidentally or purposely involved in something.

Correspondent: So part of the appeal of The Maid’s Version and all these little bits and anecdotes you were collecting was to really inhabit the Other. In this way.

Woodrell: Yeah. As time went on, I realized more and more it’s the key to the whole book — to me anyway. It’s the Dunahew family story. That the dance hall and some of the surrounding qualities of that or aftereffects of that were propellants to the Dunahew family’s shift over a generation and a half or two.

Correspondent: I actually really wanted to ask you about a tilt in your writing style that I detected with Tomato Red, where suddenly you have sentences that demand almost this total life through language. Of course, a lot of this is evident because of that amazing first paragraph in Tomato Red, but I wanted to point it out by reading one of the sentences from Tomato Red: “This Pinto pooted small gray distress signals from the tailpipe and sounded like a chain-smoker at a cold dawn and practically shrieked for a civil rights lawyer when I forced it up hills.” So aside from the simile, we have “Pinto pooted.” We have “up hills” split into two words. I’m wondering, with this book, did you need to have that voice of Sammy Barlach to just really get these sentences? Is perspective really the way for you to evolve as a stylist? I was hoping to get something.

Woodrell: Yeah. Very much. And Sammy was probably the first voice I did that was quite — he’s not unhinged or anything, but he definitely sees everything from a little bit of a different angle than most of us probably do. And I thought of Sammy very much as an Expressionist. He’s looking at the real world but he’s just not seeing it exactly the way most people see it. And so that began to suggest a richness of language because of the insights he was having that kind of called for that. And it wouldn’t be any fun for me to write if I wasn’t allowed to let the language run amuck and then hopefully, if it’s really amuck, I’ll catch it in time to trim it back. (laughs) But that’s a big motivating force for me to write at all.

Correspondent: I was wondering if that was the aha moment for you. I mean, I like the other books before that. But that one really amps things up to this level where the language and the character are absolutely one in a way that it continues with the subsequent books. And it’s interesting that with The Maid’s Version, you go to this more succinct approach to also try and inhabit the sentence. Did the structure of this book — was it almost an obstacle for the language perspective approach? I was wondering about that.

Woodrell: Well, Tomato Red — and I would agree with you on that. I have often said that I felt that something started to click there. I wasn’t fully cognizant of just what all was going on. In fact, it was only when I had an occasional look at it maybe a year after I’d finished it, I began to recognize more of what was going on in there. And in this book, I didn’t want one character to tell the story in such a forceful way that they precluded all other possible interpretations or something. That it was just so forcefully about them that they would overshadow everything else. And that’s part of the reason why Alek is a little to the side. It’s also a book where I have a bunch of, you know, “motherfucker this motherfucker that.” And it wasn’t really on purpose initially. And then I was reading through it and I realized, “Oh! Where’s your standard?” (laughs)

Correspondent: I think though that the respect for the grief of this town is probably what motivates that. And maybe, it would seem to me anyway, that what you’re trying to do language-wise with this was to give voice to the town as opposed to one solitary perspective. Is that safe to say?

Woodrell: Yeah. And people are introduced as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” A generation and a half or two ago almost, that would be standard. The lady next door was not Joan. She was Mrs. Henry Eastall. And that suggests a certain kind of decorum and regard and circumspection.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, danke, maikeeelx, and megapaul.)

The Bat Segundo Show #517: Daniel Woodrell (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: William Kennedy

William Kennedy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #427. He is most recently the author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.

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For related material, you can read my Modern Library Reading Challenge essay on Ironweed.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught in a migratory comedy of errors.

Author: William Kennedy

Subjects Discussed: Resonances in historical fiction that align with the present day, the William Gibson notion (“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”), Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding, the 2008 Greek riots, writing Ironweed while being firmly immersed in the 1930s, referring to the homeless before “homeless” existed as a word, prophetic novelists, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the tradition of torture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Roscoe, writing about the Albany political machine for forty years, stolen elections and kickbacks, interviewing morally shady figures as a novelist and as a journalist, meeting with Charlie Ryan, Dan O’Connell, how Kennedy coaxed political figures to tell him stories over the years, sources who insist on being on the record as insiders, intrusive noise, the journalist as the intellectual equivalent to the bartender or the barista, politicians who talk differently when microphones are present, Newspaper Row in Albany, lead filings and rats descending from newspaper ceilings, journalistic squalor, Kennedy’s relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Pulitzer’s notion of journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, fiction vs. journalism, The Ink Truck, Fellini, how a multidimensional fictitious form of Albany sprang from extremely devoted research, writing seven drafts of Legs, invention and informed speculation, the importance of letting imagination settle, Legs‘s resistance to realism, structuring a novel on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovering newness as a writer, precedents for Ironweed, parallels between Cuban history and civil rights, efforts to find the right Cuban history period for Chango’s Beads, Fulgencio Batista’s kids going to school in Albany, the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses as a possible inspiration point, The Gut in Albany, Black Power and community action during the late 1960s, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X sitting in the balcony of the New York Senate, Eldridge Cleaver, the Albany Cycle beyond 1968, telescoping Albany history for the sake of telling a story, arson and riots, the figure of Matt Daughterty, having to publish newspaper stories in out-of-town newspapers to avoid the wrath of the Albany political machine, comparisons between Quinn’s Book and Chango’s Beads, following personalities contained within fictitious families over many years, journeys away from Albany in the Albany cycle, avoiding Albany burnout, a new play based on a departure from Very Old Bones, and fiction driven by bullet-like dialogue.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were drawing a distinction between the journalist who is the bartender or the barista — the intellectual equivalent to that — and the novelist, who may in fact have an even greater advantage. Some novelists who were former journalists have told me that they’ll get people to talk with them more if they say they’re a novelist. I’m sure this has been the case with you.

Kennedy: Oh yeah. When the Mayor invited me over to talk about writing a book with him, he didn’t say quite why. I couldn’t understand it. Because I thought he had great antipathy toward me. But I went over. And we just had this conversation. And I sat there and talked to him. And I took a lot of notes. And he said he wanted me to maybe interview him and dredge up whatever I wanted to and write whatever I wanted to. And then he would rebut it. And I didn’t think that was going to work. But I knew that it was a great opportunity to talk to the Mayor.

So anyway we carried on. And it turned out I did write a lot about him in this book. It was kind of a biography. I wrote three pieces actually on him. And he was great in the first meeting. And then the second time, I brought over a mike and a tape recorder. And he clammed up. I mean, he didn’t stop talking, but he didn’t say anything. I mean, he was very salty in the first conversation. And he was a very intelligent man and very well-educated and smart as they come politically. And he had a great sense of humor. But it was boring in the second interview. So I took him out again. I took him to lunch. And he opened right up again as soon as he knew there was no tape recorder. And I took notes. He’s safe with notes because he can say, “He got it wrong.” There’s no proof.

Correspondent: Well, I actually wanted to ask — speaking of history, there are moments in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Quinn’s Book where you have newspapermen who are wearing hats as the lead filings are falling upon them. In the case of Billy Phelan, there’s actual rats falling from the ceiling.

Kennedy: That’s true.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Did you have first-hand experience of this?

Kennedy: No. This was at the newspaper that I was working on. But in their previous incarnation, which was only a few years before I got there, they were on Beaver Street in a very old, old center of the city. The South End. In The Gut. And it was Newspaper Row. The Albany Journal was there. The Albany Argus. The Knickerbocker News. The Knickerbocker Press. Etcetera etcetera. The Times Union was up the street a bit. And then they moved into new digs. But I remember that one of the reporters and the copy editors said that the rats used to come down, walk the ceiling. The composing room was upstairs. Over the city room. And there was always these lead filings that were coming through the cracks in the floor. And so these guys wore their hats around the desks. And the reporters wore their hats indoors.

Correspondent: The pre-OSHA days. (laughs)

Kennedy: You know, it had a practical application, those hats. In addition to being the style of the day. And the rats used to come down and eat the paste out of the paste pots.

Correspondent: Which is also immortalized in Billy Phelan.

Kennedy: That’s in Billy Phelan. They were all stories that these guys who had grown up there, they’d seen it. One of my buddies, he’d been a reporter for ten years or so all during that period in Beaver Street. And he was a great storyteller. And he told me…well, you know.

Correspondent: Did you experience any first-hand journalistic squalor?

Kennedy: Journalistic squalor.

Correspondent: Along those lines. Or perhaps other forms of squalor.

Kennedy; (laughs) Well, no. Not quite like that. The paper had modernized. I mean, I was there in the age of the typewriter and the clacking teletypes and papers would stack up on the floor like crazy. At the end of the work day, everybody threw everything onto the floor. The old newspapers. All the old teletypes. And it was a great mess. There was….hmm, squalor. (laughs)

Correspondent: Rotting walls? Asbestos-laden environments? (laughs)

Kennedy: Sorry, I can’t. I knew all the guys who had gone through it.

Correspondent: Well, on a similar note, Hunter S. Thompson. I have to ask this largely because The Paris Review interviewed you and cut this bit. He said, “He refused to hire me. Called me swine, fool, beatnik. We go way back.” But I also know that he wrote you a quite hubristic letter. How did you two patch things up after this early exchange of invective and all that?

Kennedy: Well, I never called him a swine.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kennedy: It’s possible in a letter, in later years, I might have called him a swine. But that was his terminology.

Correspondent: He was trying to prop you up.

Kennedy: I would just throw it back at him or something like that. You know, there was no rancor at all. After the first exchange of letters, almost immediately it was patched up. I mean, he was furious at me for rejecting him when he applied for a job. You’re talking about the quote there where he said…

Correspondent: He said that on Charlie Rose.

Kennedy: Charlie Rose. But he was referring to my attitude toward The Rum Diary. Which was the novel that he was writing down in Puerto Rico when I got to know him. And he had just started it. And in later years, he sent it to me. I wish I had kept it. I don’t know why. I can’t find it. I don’t think I have any remnants of it and I’ve got a lot of his stuff. But maybe I have some pieces. But I don’t remember. And I can’t even remember the letter I wrote. But I wrote him a letter and I told him, “Forget about this novel. You can’t publish this. This is terrible.” And it was a big fat novel. It was fat and it was logorrhea. And it was a young man’s ruminations and discoveries of all of that.

Correspondent: A journalist aspiring to be a novelist.

Kennedy: Right, right, right. And he was a smart guy. Very, very smart guy. But that novel just didn’t work. What was published — the book that was published is one third of the text of the old book. It doesn’t have any of those flaws that I could see — I just started to read it again the other day. I tried to see the movie three times, and I can’t.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Kennedy: Well, I’m in the Academy and I get these screeners from the Academy. But it didn’t work. The screener didn’t work. It says “Wrong disc.”

Correspondent: Oh no.

Kennedy: So I have to get another one. But I’m anxious to see it. I think it’s full of probably libelous accusations against the [San Juan] Star, the newspaper down there and the people who run it. But that was expected from Hunter.

Correspondent: What do you think distinguishes your approach — being a journalist turning into a novelist — from Hunter’s approach? I mean, was he just not serious enough and you were more devoted? Was it a matter of being well-read? What was it exactly that distinguished the two of you?

Kennedy: Well, I was a serious journalist. I mean, he presumed to be. That was the basis for our initial argument about that bronze plaque. You know about that? The bronze plaque on the side of The New York Times — it’s a quote from Joseph Pulitzer When that building was home to The New York World, a great newspaper that Pulitzer ran in New York. Anyway, he revered that. You know, it’s this high-minded attitude toward the news. No fear of favor or whatever. Work against the thieves. Whatever. I’ve absolutely forgotten what Pulitzer said.

[Note: The Pulitzer plaque reads: “An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”]

Kennedy; I remember its tone. And I could find it. And this whole episode is summed up in the introduction to Hunter’s book, The Proud Highway — his first collection of letters. He asked me to write an introduction to that. And I told the whole story of how he applied for the job and didn’t get it and so on. But his attitude toward journalism was high-minded. But when he started to practice it, a year or so later, roaming around South America, he started writing — he was winging it, you know? He wasn’t interested in “Just the facts, ma’am.” He was half a fiction writer in those days. Roaming around. Whatever caught his fancy or his imagination, he would write it. I mean, it came to a point where he went to the Kentucky Derby and that was the one that really put him on the map. “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” It ran in Scanlan’s Monthly, I think. And it had nothing to do with reporting. He was making it up. And it was fiction.

There may have been some basis in all that happens in the story for it. But he just invents the dialogue that goes on between the various people and follows his own chart and reacts as a novelist, and then presents it as journalism. This is what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was presumably journalism. But it’s fiction. It’s a novel. And he claimed in retrospect that he had notes to prove every element in that novel. But he didn’t. (laughs) I mean, all the hallucinations. Whatever his hallucinations were, they were hallucinations. And they’re his. And they’re internal. And who’s to say who’s hallucinating when he’s writing what he’s writing. The sum and substance of Thompson was that he started off as a journalist and he became this wild crazy gonzo journalist, which was half a fiction writer’s achievement. And he was always in the early days thinking about the novel and new forms of the novel. And he created one. Novels are very valuable in their wisdom and their insights and their reporting and their historical penetration of the world that they’re centering on. And he was famously talented in all those realms to achieve those things. And he did. But in the end, I mean he comes off as a career journalist and a singular one. There was nobody like him and there never will be. A lot of people have tried. He’s inimitable. But when he started out, he had all the baggage that goes with the aspiring novelist. And he always made the distinction that I started off to be a journalist and turned into a novelist and he started off to be a novelist and turned into a journalist. And that’s true enough.

My journalism very rarely could be challenged — it could never be challenged as a work of fiction. I never did anything like that. I found ways to enliven the text with language. So did Hunter. But Hunter also reimagined history and reimagined daily life when he invented his world.

Correspondent: To go to your work, The Ink Truck — I wanted to ask you about this. Your first published novel. This is interesting because, unlike the topographical precision that you see in the Albany Cycle, the details of Albany in The Ink Truck are not nearly that precise. They’re more abstract. And I’m curious why that sense of place only emerged in the subsequent novels.

Kennedy: Well, because when I wrote that novel, I was reacting to my resistance to traditional realism and naturalism. You know, I had been there with Steinbeck, Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and so on. And Hemingway also was a great realist. Not the naturalist, but the great realist and the great reporter. And I was in a different mode. I was immersed in Joyce at that time and very much aware of Ulysses and the wildness of the invention that pervades that novel. I was thinking of the surrealists. I was in the grip of Buñuel the filmmaker. I loved his work.

Correspondent: Also a wonderful late bloomer too.

Kennedy: (laughs) And Fellini. I though that 8 1/2 was one of the great movies ever made. It may be the greatest to me and I’m not sure I don’t think that still.

Correspondent: What of Satyricon? (laughs)

Kennedy: Well, I thought it was interesting. So much of Fellini I do love. But 8 1/2, because it was in one guy’s head and it just went in and out of reality, that’s what I wanted to do. I used to say that novel was always six inches off the ground. So levitating was important. And I wasn’t really interested in grounding myself in the squalor of that situation. That was a pretty squalid time when we were in the guild room during that strike. There was a strike that I went through and was the inspiration for that novel. But that book is sort of an excursion to comedy and surreal comedy. I mean, it presumes to be serious in certain stages of its intensity. But basically it’s a wild, crazy, surreal story.

Correspondent: But when you have the character of Albany begin to appear in your work, suddenly I think there’s more of a kitchen sink approach. You have very hard-core realism. You have hallucinations. Surrealism. You have all sorts of things. Almost a kitchen sink approach. And I’m curious if the increasing complexity of your books, where this comes from. Does it arise out of your very meticulous and fastidious research? Does it arise from wanting to reinvent the form of the novel? To not repeat yourself? Does it arise from having established a Yoknapatawpha-like universe of characters? What of this?

Kennedy: Well, all of the above. Everything you said. I was always trying to do something that I hadn’t done before, that I couldn’t attach to anybody in particular. You know, you can’t imitate Joyce. You can’t imitate Hemingway. I tried and I did all the way along in various failed enterprises. And I knew that it was a dead end. I was trying for something new. With Legs, I was inundated with research. I spent two years under the microfilm machine. We no longer have to do that. Just punch in Google. Now it’s amazing. But in those days, I would spend days. All day. Half the week inside the library. Not only microfilm, but all the books of the age. All the magazines. I went to New York and got the morgues of all the major newspapers. The Times. The New York Post. The Daily News, which was fantastic. And so on. And I researched everything there was to find on Legs Diamond serendipitously. And then I also kept turning — I probably interviewed 300 people. I don’t know how many. Sort of cops and gangsters. Retired gangsters with prostate trouble. And I really stultified myself at a certain stage in that novel. And I had to stop and take account of what was really going on. And I had to reinvent the book.

Correspondent: You wrote it seven times, I understand.

Kennedy: I guess the seventh was the final time. I wrote it six times. Or was it six years and eight times? The eighth time was a cut. I had finished it but it was too fat. So I cut 70, 80 pages. I don’t remember what I cut. But I don’t miss them. Whatever I cut, it was all right. But I started from scratch really. After six drafts, I went back and spent three months just designing the book all over again and designing history of every character all over again and putting a totally new perspective on it. Because I had too much material. And there was no way to stop it from coming to me. Except to just close it off and say, “I’m not going to read another newspaper. I’m not going to crack another book. I’m going to write the story. I’m done with the research.” Of course, that never really happens. You have to go back and check. But that’s what I did. And that’s how I finished the book.

The Bat Segundo Show #427: William Kennedy (Download MP3)

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(Image: Judy C. Sanders)

Ironweed (Modern Library #92)

(This is the ninth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Magus)

[Only months after writing this essay, we were extremely honored to interview William Kennedy for The Bat Segundo Show. That conversation runs 64 minutes and gets into Kennedy’s entire career.]

“Anybody who doesn’t have an idea about what it is to be homeless, or on the road or lost and without a family, really hasn’t thought very much at all.” — William Kennedy, Interview with The Paris Review

William Kennedy was in his mid-fifties when all of his novels went out of print. While he remained a working journalist, his latest manuscript about a scuffed up drifter named Francis Phelan — a minor character from his 1978 novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game — had been rejected by thirteen publishers. Ironweed had come comparatively quicker than his previous novels. Kennedy wrote eight versions of Legs over six years. He devoted two years to Billy Phelan. But he wrote Ironweed in seven months. Still, this unanticipated celerity was of null solace to publishers studying Kennedy’s then sketchy sales record.

Kennedy was hardly a stranger to such uncertainty on the fiction front. In his initial fiction efforts, he wrote 30 stories These were all rejected. As he told Penny Maldonado in a 1969 interview, it was a rejection slip from The Atlantic reading “You write with a facility that has held our attention” that kept him going for ten more years. Saul Bellow, whom Kennedy met while in Puerto Rico, had urged the young Kennedy to carry on with his fiction writing. But Kennedy, banging away late into the night after a long day, would fall asleep at 2AM in the middle of a sentence. He felt he did not know his hometown of Albany, New York. So he moved back. Bellow continued to encourage him, even helping him secure an agent. Indeed, without Bellow, Ironweed would not have been published at all. It was Bellow’s direct intervention with Viking Press which ensured that Kennedy’s best known novel was published. The book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Kennedy would be awarded a $264,000 tax-free MacArthur fellowship and he would use this money to establish what is now known as the New York State Writers Institute. Ironweed would be included on the Modern Library list, where, years later, some wild-eyed bastard in Brooklyn with a ridiculously ambitious reading project would finally get around to it.

* * *

I had not read Kennedy before, but I am glad that I did. Like Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, I read the book twice, thought about it for a while, and found myself very tempted to read additional volumes. Fortunately, I was halted from such ambition after taking a look at Benedict Giamo’s The Homeless of Ironweed, a dry and overanalytical tome written by one of those insufferable academics who can never see beyond their blinkered and not especially interesting perspectives. I realized that I’d be on firmer ground confining my modest insights to just one book in Kennedy’s multi-volume Albany Cycle.

Ironweed opens on October 31, 1938. Francis Phelan, a former major league ballplayer bouncing around for twenty-two years, sees dead people. Thankfully, by every artistic standard, William Kennedy is a superior writer to M. Night Shyamalan. The dead, which include Francis’s expired relatives and a few men he’s killed mostly in self-defense, observe him as he labors at Saint Agnes Cemetery. They haunt him in buses and boxcars. Is Francis hallucinating? Do these visions emerge from his drinking problem? Over the years, there has been a temptation among some critics to cite this facet of Ironweed as “magical realism.” But because Ironweed is such a human novel, I think that the ghosts can more sufficiently identified as part of Francis’s perspective. After all, if we wish to accept and understand troubled souls, then we must often acknowledge what seems real to them. (It’s worth observing that in a 1983 interview with Larry McCaffery, Kennedy pointed out that the ghosts “probably came more from Our Town and Dickens than from Marquez.”)

We learn in the book’s masterful first chapter that Francis has suffered great grief. Years before, Francis accidentally dropped his infant son Gerald onto the hard tile floor of a saloon, killing him only thirteen days after his birth.* “Francis left his family, drowned his sorrows in drink, and took up with another woman named Helen. Yet learn, in 1930, that Francis lost his job at a fixit shop through no fault of his own and he could not land another job. Back then, he left Helen too. He stays with her still, but the relationship has attenuated.

What causes Francis to run? Does Francis’s transiency transform him into an impatient and violent figure? Well, it’s complicated. Here is a man who, upon returning to his family home on All Saints’ Day with a turkey, says “I don’t want no fights, rile up the family.” And it would seem that he’s the type to avoid conflict. Yet only moments before, after an aggressive effort to collect payment from a ragman, Francis says, “And I ain’t really a bad sort once you get to know me.” But when a shady figure name Little Red tells him to shut up in a flophouse, Francis instantly resorts to violence.

Undoubtedly, being identified as a bum hasn’t exactly put Francis’s grief on the fast track. Late in the book, Rudy (a kind of quasi-Lenny to Francis’s George Milton) tells Francis that people call downtrodden figures bums because they feel better when they say it. But is being a bum such a cut and dry term of disparagement? Not exactly. When Francis works for a ragman named Rosskam, Rosskam regularly amends his assessment of the former Washington Senators ballplayer turned sandwich-eating “bum” with modifiers (“tidy,” “impatient,” “sensitive”), whenever Francis requests something or ventures a philosophical thought. Yet during one moment, the act of physical labor triggers a revelatory self-assessment:

He rubbed his hands together. Where they the enemies? How could a man’s hands betray him? They were full of scars, calluses, split fingernails, ill-healed bones broken on other man’s jaws, veins so bloated and blue they seemed on the verge of explosion. The hands were long-fingered, except where there was no finger, and now, with accreting age, the fingers had thickened, like the low-growing branches of a tree.

If Francis’s hands are an accumulative road map of nasty nicks and sad crannies, then why isn’t there any indication here of Francis’s past as a ballplayer or a family man? Even accounting for the fact that this period in Francis’s life came before Rowdy Dick took off “two thirds of a right index finger” with a cleaver (a curiously exact phrase), surely the complete portrait would value this period as much as the epoch that involved “ill-healed bones broken on other man’s jaws.” On the other hand, Francis doesn’t entirely accept his physical form, for he views his hands as independent entities. “They don’t need me,” he tells Rosskam, “They do what they goddam please.” (This is another inverted nod to Steinbeck’s Depression novel. Lennie may not know his own strength, but the hard truth is that Francis does. It’s also worth noting that, in a 1989 New York Times Book Review essay, Kennedy would confirm his great admiration for Steinbeck, with a sly nod to Francis’s digits: “I look around and try to find other American writers whose work has meant as much to me, and I count them on one hand. Maybe one and a half.”) On the other hand, Francis uses his hands for labor and is willing to obtain compensation by any means necessary. When Rosskam makes a move to cheat Francis, Francis says, “Dead men took their last ride on their hand. You get me?”

Are Francis’s hands just as dead as the phantoms who haunt him? Is Francis’s life “long-lived, except when there was no life?” Labor as a form of salvation crops up throughout the book during unusual moments. For example, when Francis and Rudy meet a tubercular man named Moose in a flophouse, Moose says, “Probably ain’t nothin’ wrong with you work won’t cure.” Yet Ironweed‘s vagrants can work as hard as they want or even discover ten dollar bills that “grow on trees,” but they are still at the behest of raiders who bust up shantytowns, a reverend who won’t provide shelter to anyone who drinks (this policy causes a woman to die), and cruel “goblins” who rip off hard-earned money.

Yet Kennedy is careful to suggest that within societal dichotomies lie additional distinctions. (There’s something especially plaintive in Francis “seeing” the dead when he is perceived as “dead” by others.) “Some people,” says Rosskam, “they don’t know junk. It ain’t garbage. And garbage, it aint’ junk.” And as an early conversation between Francis and Rudy about an alcoholic named Sandra reveals, labels are all about aesthetic perception:

“She’s a bum or just on a heavy drunk?”
“She’s a bum.”
“She looks like a bum.”
“She’s been a bum all her life.”
“No,” said Francis. “Nobody’s a bum all their life. She hada been somethin’ one.”

The last line from Francis, with its sandwiched As and its dropped Gs, shows off one of the novel’s subtle strengths. From the vantage point of 2011, it’s difficult to corroborate the way in which the homeless talked in 1938. Yet within the context of the book, the vernacular here feels authentic — even when a kind librarian offers an overly formalistic command to Helen: “But you may stay as long as you like, my dear, if you choose to read.” (Can we truly imagine a librarian saying a sentence constructed like that today?)

But Francis and his ilk may as well be Martians to most of the world. This xenophobia is backed up by several oblique references to Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. When Francis returns home, he says, “It ain’t one of them fellas from Mars.” An early colloquy between Francis and Rudy discussing the recently transmitted hysteria has Francis proposing a solution to the claims that Martians landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey: “Anybody sees a Martian oughta jump out two windows.” But at least one learned man in Albany — specifically, Dr. Benjamin Ross of Dudley Observatory — points out, “Earth is a very small target and in all probability a Martian space ship would miss it altogether.”

If seeing someone as lesser and/or foreign is the only way for these characters to survive, then this may explain Francis’s protest during a trolley strike in 1901. Francis’s involvement starts off fairly innocuously, lighting kerosene-soaked sheets on an electrical wire. But upon sighting a scab conductor named Harold Allen, he uses his pitching prowess to lob a stone at his skull. Harold becomes “the first man Francis Phelan ever killed.” When the dead Harold starts questioning Francis’s logic, all Francis can say is “I got arguments. I got arguments.”

Twenty-eight years later, Francis beats a charge of political corruption (voting for Democrats twenty-one times at five dollars a pop) on a technicality. The man who persuaded Francis’s lawyer to go easy with the bill is Martin Daugherty, a former neighbor and a newspaper columnist, who has written articles about Francis’s family. Indeed, we learn near the end of the book that one of Daugherty’s relatives, Edward, has written a left-wing play called The Car Burns lionizing Francis’s actions. This suggests that Francis’s actions matter more than he realizes, especially because they are memorialized by writers. The famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) certainly applies. On the other hand, two graveside names that Francis sees toiling at Saint Agnes are DAUGHERTY and KENNEDY. Even those who print the legends eventually die. If death unites all of us, why do we spend so much of our times erecting boundaries? Even in a gloomy novel like Ironweed, there’s a moment in which everybody comes together in a bar to experience “unnatural sociality.” The name of the bar? The Gilded Cage. “Where the old Gayety Theater used to be.”

* — Kennedy describes Gerald’s corpse in the cemetery as one with “a protective web which deflected all moisture, all moles, rabbits, and other burrowing creatures.” Additionally, Gerald’s “ability to communicate and to understand was at the genius level among the dead.” Is there some genius contained within Francis’s scions? Billy Phelan, Francis’s quite living son, says late in the book, “How could I know anything? I’m a goddam genius.” “Genius” may be just as useless a label as “bum.”

Next Up: Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road!