One of my favorite story collections of the last decade, maybe ever, is Gary Amdahl’s Visigoth, which was published five years ago by Milkweed Editions. Since the time I read the book I have had the good fortune to build a friendship with Amdahl and even have him blurb my new novel. But doing this interview has been one of the most rewarding events of my writing life. His unflinching honesty and approach to writing gives me solace, while also managing to frighten me about this path we’ve chosen. As it should be, I believe.
In honor of Visigoth’s fifth anniversary I’ll be giving away four copies of the book (they are used copies but in good shape). It’s a book I believe everyone should read. So, leave a comment on why you would like a copy and I’ll pick four people a week from today.
Now, for the goods:
RWB: It’s been five years since VISIGOTH was published, but when I read the stories the book feels timeless. And I know the stories are older than five years. When you look back on the stories in the collection what do you remember most about them? Do you remember the impetus for any of them? Are there any stories you look back on from that era that didn’t make the book that you still think about now? If I didn’t know the publication date I would have guessed mid-90’s, simply for the state of story publishing at the time, but in either decade it still would have held up as one of the best modern story collections, in my opinion. What has time done for you in relation to VISIGOTH?
GA: All stories are products of the time and place into which they are born–for good reasons, bad reasons, indifferent but inescapable reasons. They are also, more importantly in my view, the products of something like 100,000 years (probably twice that, but we have no evidence) of human consciousness. The mind that created “Visigoth” is absolutely the same “kind” of mind that painted an aurochs and the almost photographically realistic horses on the wall at Chauvet 40,000 years ago, or mined and prepared red ochre with a mortar and pestle in a cave in south Africa 100,000 years ago.
There is only one story. The usual dictum goes, “There are two kinds of stories,” or “There are seven basic types of story,” and so on, depending on the level of thought and the point of view and the purposes of the person expounding the dicta. I say there is only one. But because we are slightly different from each other, because we ourselves are constantly changing, and because the world is constantly changing, the story comes out differently each time it is born.
My stuff specifically? Some of it strikes me as terribly juvenile. Some seems to be holding up pretty well. I wrote them in the late 80s and early 90s. I published the first two shortly after I wrote them, in Fiction and in The Quarterly, but went through a decade-long drought before the next publication. I published a pile of stuff in the early 2000s, but it took another couple years after that (2006) to get them all in a book.
Why the drought? I don’t know. It nearly killed me. I say that with no hyperbole whatsoever. And it came close to killing other people. Which is to say, in answer to your question, the impetus for those stories was nitro in my blood. I was a tight-rope walker and felt life and death were at stake with every bloody word. I was a writer, purely and simply and exclusively. I published enough to confirm my high opinion of myself (and had had some plays done in the early 80s), but the long exile in obscurity was very hard. I am actually in another such period now. The publisher of Visigoth and I Am Death and I have parted ways. I have published bits and pieces (and even big sections) of several novels in places like” Agni” and “Massachusetts Review” and “A Public Space” but the novels themsevles are remaining unpublished. Again: I don’t know why.
There is one difference between the 90s and now, and my understanding of it, my ability to articulate it, comes directly from John Hawkes, who was a seriously unconventional novelist who managed to get himself front and center a few times on our literary stage. When he published his first book, “Cannibals,” a fellow student (at harvard) interviewed him and asked him what it felt like to be a writer. Hawkes said, “I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as someone who is playing around seriously with words.”
His point is that he was not in a profession, he was not in a category, he did not have a badge or a title or a certificate. He was merely confronting consciousness with language.
That is what I am trying to do, with as little thought for reward and recognition as I can manage, simply because I cannot NOT do it.
RWB: I like this idea that there is only one story. I think you are right, that people get hung up on this idea of there being this type of story or that type of story. The point is the story itself, whichever story it is for that moment. It’s an interesting context in which to look at one’s own work as well. So, the drought you speak of, did you find that intensity working into your stories in a way that differed from the pre-drought period, and if so did any of these find their way into VISIGOTH? Perhaps related to this is how you see the difference between the publishing climate of the 90’s and now, do you feel writers or perhaps publishers have stopped confronting language the way writers like Hawkes and yourself have tried to do over the years?
GA: What a delicious bleeping question. Pardon my drool. The Great Drought of the 90s produced writing of great intensity. I don’t think it was a different order or kind of intensity, though, because I didn’t know the drought was occurring: I didn’t know until it was over. While it was happening, I thought I was simply continuing what i had begun. The title story of the Visigoth collection came from a novel. There were…several others. All were burned. In the end, they were, I have to admit…not very good. Or at least as “flawed” as they were “interesting.” The Visigoth novel, which was called “Dead Hand” (after my only successful play on a similar theme), was actually pretty good, I think, but it was waaaay too long for that kind of mouthy narrator. Tom McGuane, who acknowledged it as an offspring of his “Panama,” said if I cut it in half, it might work. But I was already on to something else, and thought, of my HERO, McGuane: oh fuck you, man, the least you could have done is type that criticism out so I didn’t have to struggle to read it. CUT IT IN HALF???
Second half of your question: the publishing climate always seems inhospitable to those who are not the few, very few, monstrously comically few, who are luxuriating in the bain de soleil. Nevertheless…I am not the only artist currently engaged with English prose to feel that we are indeed in a crisis, and that is deepening, not shallowening. I like to think (who does not…everybody?), as you suggested, that the problem is an unwillingness to “confront language,” but that too has always been and will always be the case. Most people are content to look at amateur photographs of vacation scenery over and over and over, if that’s what everybody else is doing, and they are free to say they like this one better than that one. Lonely are the brave. Or brave are the lonely. What seems different now is that the unwillingness has been commodified, monetized; that it became first a fear, then a hostility, then a marketing necessity (just like everything else in America), and is now as much on the mind of the reading public as the CIA’s trial overthrow of Guatemala in 1954. No: as much on their minds as the discovery and killing of saddam Hussein. Of Muammar Qaddafi. Of Jerry Sandusky (allegedly) butt-bleeping (it sounds better that way, no?) and blowing young scholar-athletes who wanted to be Nittany Lions and savor the farts of JoePa.
Seriously: in times of upheaval (e.g., vomit), only the easily manufactured product will be allowed to live. the “business model” (there’s only one, just like stories!) is not only de facto our means of survival, it is de jure! When the learned playboys of publishing still had their houses, Alfred Knopf, for example, would condescend to publish Wallace Stevens (their correspondence is hilariously sado-masochistic), but the learned playbosy are long dead and gone. (Do you hear Lou Reed when i say that? I do.) Maybe that’s a good thing, because they were busy little monsters (to rip off my friend Billy Giraldi). On the other hand, would you rather be John Keats dead or _________ (fill in the blank with currently popular asshole) alive? It’s a really good question.
RWB: That last hypothetical you pose is, I think, a perfect question for any writer to ask themselves as they develop. Would you rather be an undeniably classic writer whose work lives on indefinitely, or someone whose writing makes them some level of money and notoriety in the present with no guarantee of the long run of the artform. Maybe I still remember too fondly my days of imagining myself as a great athlete, and maybe this is an unfair question, but five years on from its release do you ever find yourself thinking, like a kid dreaming of playing in the World Series (or perhaps the Stanley Cup), about the future legacy of VISIGOTH? When you write a new story now do you feel there is anything to live up to or to honor from your first collection?
GA: Not an unfair question at all. A good one and a tough one. Rocks me back on my little old cowboy-boot-heels (which is what I wore when I wrote the Fizzygoth stories). The problem is this: I don’t want to disown my youth…but a lot of it was misspent. Badly misspent. The Fizzy stories represent the absolute best spin I could put on my life: the best expression of what ailed me, and the best consequence of having tried to get out from under that ailment. So a part of me is embarrassed by Visigoth. Another part of me is insanely proud of it. I daydream about fame and fortune right now, and I ponder the idea of greatness after death–a lot. (I think in one sense I’m teaching a class about it next semester: CONSCIOUSNESS: WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?) But I am very close to a kind of serene acceptance–as in the Serenity Prayer, as in Buddhism, as in the foundation of what’s good in every spiritual or religious thought a human being has ever had–of what I can and cannot control. I can’t make myself rich and famous, even though I acknowledge that goal as the fundamental duty of all American citizens. I can continue to write (well, honestly, I can’t, haven’t for about six months, but, you know, I COULD IF I WANTED TO!). I can go on ala Samuel Beckett even when, especially when, I can’t go on. A friend of mine said, “Visigoth and I Am Death are your Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay. AMBBB is your Absalom, Absalom! and Three Clowns is your As I Lay Dying and The Daredevil is your The Sound and the Fury and–you get the idea. I could go on and on! Talk about dreams of glory…! But here’s the closer: one of the novels I have floating around is called The Treaties, and it is about the life of a minor character in the story Visigoth: the main character’s friend, left wing to his center, Indian to his white. It is a big big big novel. Every time I write (or lately, read) a sentence of it, I think of how wonderful I felt when I wrote Fizzy, and how this novel will live forever. Frankly. Honestly. I do.
RWB: It’s nice to hear an established writer talk about the daydreaming, because I often feel foolish when I catch myself having those moments, but I’ve always said they are natural. Maybe it comes with ambition. I was struck when I was working in construction how many people felt at home with the job, there was no pining for something better, except maybe retiring to Hawaii after fifty years on the job. It was a job and they looked at it as a sort of “this is what I do and I’m comfortable with that” attitude. For me, I often feel not being that way is my biggest failing in life, but your Consciousness comment makes me think that maybe that is what separates artists, writers, and the like: not being comfortable just doing a job, wanting to get more out of the effort that is going into our daily activity. Of course, this is spitballing, but do you feel that is a driving force behind art, and maybe what appeals to you with your characters who are often a mix of both worlds?
RWB: I’d say two books through Milkweed, and stories published in many of the top literary journals is pretty darn established. Yours is certainly not the resume of a beginning writer.
GA: Okay, let us say, “disestablished.”
What “spitballing” is to other people are life and death questions to whoever we are. Artists. I used to balk at that word, feel a little embarrassed or even ashamed to make such a claim. My father was an accountant and my mother was a housewife; they both grew up on farms, dairy farms, with sheep and hogs and chickens and about twenty cultivated species other than corn and soybeans. As I famously insist in “Narrow Road” my mother didn’t even have running water in the house she and my aunt and my grandparents lived in (and that was the house I was born in!). That was hard, hard work, and both my parents were happy to get off their farms. My father’s father tried more than once to do something other than farming, because he…detested it. He liked to read. so I know what you mean when you talk about the seeming contentment of people who really work for a living. Whatever the quality of their actual lives, they at least do not walk around as if pole-axed worried and scared and defiant and proud about the next sentence they’re going to write, the next brush-stroke, the next crotchet or minim (I have been studying my musicology). To be worried sick about imagniary things is crazy! But of course it’s not “imaginary things” that we’re worried about. And whatever it is we’re worried about, it’s been worrying select folk–as I have said waaay too many times–for about a hundred thousand years. What we’re worrying about is the nature of reality. We are actually worrying about life and death. Life, consciousness, reality: extremely tenuous connections there to death, unconsciousness, unreality. Most people are rightly, healthily, not all that interested in those connections. That’s what we see when we skulk around in our berets, hoping to be left alone–UNTIL WE’RE DONE, when we want the biggest crowds IMAGINABLE. I’m working on an essay now, sort of like Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” you know, founding document of the Renaissance. It’s called “Much Ado About Everything: An Oration on the Dignity of the Artist.” I just hope I can remain dignified while I write it. I tend to rant and whine….
“I need a crowd of people / but I can’t face them day to day.” –Neil Young, “On the Beach”
RWB: It’s funny that you quote that line from Neil Young, I’ve always felt an unhealthy connection to that sentiment. Life and death, though, that’s the stuff. Writers often use phrases like “come to grips with” about why they explore certain themes. Did your explorations help you understand life or death or reality better? Do you think there is such thing as a true coming to terms with mortality or reality? And if so what role does our work as writers play in that journey?
GA: Unhealthy? Nah…everybody’s somewhere on that spectrum. Some people come to life only in the presence of other people, some only in the absence. Most people are–surprise!–around the middle! Writers, artists, are in the middle, too, but here’s what I think is going on, at least with me: we are ripped violently from the arms of solitude and ripped in turn violently from the arms of other people, and we get, you know, dizzy. Writers are more or less introspective, right? Nature of the job. Lot of staring into the void. But the subject matter…! You have to be up to your ass in alligators. Introspective people need frequent and regular doses of down-time. I read about it in the New York Times, so it must be true. We looove our drugs and our drinks not because they put more logs on the sociability fire, but because we can get a kind of downtime even in the presence of other people. Again, I speak hypothetically and mostly about myself. I got addicted to all the various modes of downtime because I looooooved it so much. Now I have to tough it out, mainly with Bach and Haydn and Debussy.
But have I come to grips with any of the biggies? No, not at all. Do I understand life and death and reality better? Well, no. I’m more articulate then I was when I was nine, but I don’t know anything new. Don’t know anything at all. Still, it’s part of the pubic relations campaign that artists have always been waging: we are pioneers of consciousness! We are the Enterprise, boldly going wherever, for the sake of mankind, so please give us big grants, so we can jack off with an easy mind. Like I said, I have wanted to stop boldly going many many times. I can’t.
But here’s the answer I guess I’ve been working up to: the work of the artist can be true-hearted, true-minded (or false-hearted and false-minded or somewhere in the bleeping middle), and the consequences of that work being in the world may or may not, matter to other people.
I am terrified and exhilirated by life, by reality, by death, by thought and emotion–and I think art is a primary, a quintessential human response to those…those…those stimuli!
RWB: Speaking of reality, as writers our realities often blend into our fiction. Whether snippets of dialogue, settings, events, these things find their way into our stories sometimes consciously and sometimes not. I know this type of reality plays a role in the stories of VISIGOTH as well, especially in “The Flyweight.” A story inspired by a friend of yours who was an Olympic hopeful. I imagine that going back to this element of the book is not exactly pure nostalgia, considering the emotions of the stories. How did your real life or real events help shape VISIGOTH and has it changed how you’ve incorporated the “real” into your fiction since?
GA: Yes, let us speak of reality until the fountain overflows and the cups are struck from our trembling hands. When we were preparing Fizzy for publication, my editor and I, the great Ben Barnhart (lately sacked from the increasingly dubious Milkweed Editions) spent some time wondering if I should provide intros or afterwords for each story, in which I would tell the so-called backstory, or suggest the so-called inspiration, or, more accurately, describe the actual people whose lives and suffering I ripped off in a failed attempt to make myself famous.
Two of the pieces were–when they’d been published the first time–explicitly “essays,” work in which the so-called truth is supposedly told in so-called unadorned or sincere or authentic fashion: “The Flight from California” and “Narrow Road to the Deep North.” In “Flight” I didn’t really rip anybody off except myself and my wife, but I did cash in on one of the greatest sorrows I have known: the death of my dog, the beautiful and beloved Woody. In “Narrow Road” I actually address the way in which I was ripping off my cousins and mother and others in the wake of my uncle’s murder. There was some kind of terrible misunderstanding between my aunt and my cousin (whose husband and father had been killed) and me: I thought my aunt (who died not long after) had given me the killer’s suicide note with the explicit wish that I write about it. My cousin, who lives in Canada and can’t easily get her hands on me, came away from her mother’s deathbed with the promise that she would never let anyone ever see the suicide note.
Ben came up with an order that was more or less chronological (according to when the stories had been written) but which also seemed to hint at connections in otherwise totally unconnected stories. We also decided to call them all “stories” and not make any distinctions about essays and fiction. Because I don’t believe there are any valid distinctions–not if the artist is honest. Or is at least striving for honesty while writing, only to be tripped up by horrible feelings of guilt and theft and deceit later on,
All the stories in Fizz have “real lives” in them, without which the stories would collapse. A friend of mine lost two dog-teams through the ice on Great Slave Lake, another friend had his face blown apart by a barber-chairing tree (he lived, I am happy to say, but there was a LONG while when chips of his skull were floating dangerously around the electrified jello of his brain), the main character in “The Free Fall” had a resume alarmingly similar to Paul Wellstone’s campaign manager (eventually Obama’s Minnesota campaign director), and his friends, some of whom are or were on the Milkweed board, didn’t like it one little bit, even when I made it clear that the bad stuff came from me, and only good stuff from Jeff (whom I totally admired and whose character I had no wish to impugn or stain in the least little way).
Then there’s “The Flyweight.” He was actually a heavyweight (90kg), and he suffered terribly when he had his breakdown. Most of his friends kinda sidled or faded away (I certainly did, and should not speak for anybody else), because it was frightening and because we figured, hey, he needs some qiuet time, and then “born-again” Christian fervor entered the picture, which I felt ridiculously threatened by then (not now, it’s all one to me). But Mike came out of his nightmare and within three years was on the Greco-Roman wrestling team that was not allowed to go to the Olympics in Moscow in 1980. He just missed making the team in 1984, but was a FILA World Champion in 1985.
That the Internet and the World Wide Web are effectively magic, and in some cases quite black, is only just registering with me. I found a clip of Mike losing to Steve Fraser in 1984 and I was chilled to the bone. I wept. To say that I have mixed feelings about it all is quite an understatement. I feel more like a barberchaired tree. Corpses everywhere, real and imagined, no difference. But here I am, busily, smugly, typing away…
“Let us stop talking falsely now, the hour is getting late.” —Bob Dylan (but it’s the Hendrix version in my head).
The whole “reality hunger” hype is a lot of huey louie and dewey. If people, if readers, if American readers and citizens were the least bit interested in reality they would go after it like starving dogs, not stand in lines to have Oprah’s bloody pick packaged and spoon-fed to them: this is non-fiction, it’s true, it’s well documented and wholly verifiable, this really happened just the way it’s written to and by this heroic but flawed, courageous, right-thinking, massively interesting person. Or: this is fiction but it’s about a flawed, courageous, right-thinking, massively entertaining elf who’s the daughter of a pastor in Kansas who overcomes obesity, hard luck, the death of her mother from cancer, and her dragon’s drug addiction.
We would go after reality like wolves—serious, intelligent, relentless, not evil, just hungry, tough but carrying no grudges—because we have had very little of it in our politics and entertainment in the last decade. And it hasn’t just been missing, it’s been outlawed and disappeared, just like a dissenter in Peru. Anywhere.
I had pretty much signed off on the literary press in this country when Jonathan Raban iced the cake with a big squirt of poop: he was talking about the broad and deep popularity of a certain author, and then, in a parenthetical aside, pays huffy condescending lip service to the idea that there was “an inevitable dissenting minority” who didn’t like, at least not fanatically, this writer’s work—as if to say, yes, sad but true, they are the wearisome burden we must carry in a free society, good citizens really pretty much agree on all the important stuff, that’s why I can go to a Teabagger rally and find like minds, good honest people amongst the wacko freaks, that’s how this country is able to carry on: we allow but ignore the dissenters, the weirdos.
But what am I saying? Why am I whining? It’s all real, and it’s all bullshit. “Bullshit is bullshit!” I shouted to the uneasy crowd of readers at the LA Times Book Festival. “That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not real. Fiction true, memoir false, memoir true, fiction false.” It’s a memoir (SLAP), a novel (SLAP), a memoir (SLAP), a novel (SLAP), real (SLAP), imagined (SLAP SLAP SLAP: VE HAFF VAYS OF MAKING YOU WRITE WHAT VE VANT YOU TO WRITE!)
Like I said earlier, we thought we had better tell people (re “Visigoth”) which stories were true, and which weren’t, and what kind of truth underlay what kind of imagination, but decided, wait, won’t they be interested in figuring that out for themselves? Or not “figuring out” but simply taking it for what it’s worth? They’re readers! But no.
I tried to incorporate the documented real with the undocumented real in “I Am Death”: more than half of the transcripts in that novella are taken from tapes of interviews with actual people involved with various aspects of the Chicago mob and the power struggle that was going on in the late 80s. “Don King,” the head of national pizza chain, “Pizza King,” is actually the very well known head of a very well known pizza chain. I won’t say who. I was, however, bizarrely, inexplicably, fact-checked on that story. “I see there is an alderman named Fred Roti who was arrested in 1988, and you have a Red Froti. Is that the same person?” “No,” I sez, “I have never heard of Fred Roti.”
These nuances of truth and imagination turned out to be of very little interest whatsoever. Nobody was TOLD that it was real, so they just read it as a mafia story that was unfortunately written before “The Sopranos” aired. Same with the other novella, “Peasants”: it was an office story and I wanted to tell it just like I told it over the course of many happy-hours, you’re not going to believe this, it’s totally true, wow—but it just wasn’t an interesting story in the end, not interesting enough, or possibly even poorly-written! I don’t know. The one thing I heard, critically, was that novellas were too short.
RWB: You pre-dated The Sopranos and The Office!
I think you raise a really interesting point, that while obvious is rarely raised at all: that the “reality” or “fiction” of our work is only ever questioned or wondered about if the seed is planted. If something is marketed as “autobiographical fiction” or one of the many other hybridized labels someone somewhere created. And why are those seeds planted in the first place? Is it for the reader or the writer? How much does it matter to the actual stories how true or fictitious they are? Ultimately this seems like a question writers avoid asking themselves. “What is for me and what is for the reader?”
GA: Yes, generally, for ordinary everyday readers (however few are left and with whom I will have, and never have had, any beef whatsoever–we can’t all be highly accomplished literary daredevils and maestri), the label or the suggestion or the marketing/publicity premise is necessary. But necessary only because they have been trained to look for and accept labels, trained to actually think they need them. They do not, but it will take a long while to get over that belief. My feeling is radical (i.e., a feeling that goes back to the root): all persons interested at all in reading ought to be able to figure out for themselves what they’re reading, and take it or leave it as they see fit. This is where criticism and slow steady exchange of views becomes helpful: a reader can make his judgments tentative, can change them, revise them. The book can live longer than a sensation, and I mean that in both the “spectacular” and “sensory” ways.
The question of “what is for the author and what for the reader” goes to another place altogether. I was just reading a piece about the new film version of “Coriolanus” (which I’m looking forward to, C is one of my faves). The guy who did the adaptation was quoted to the effect that “Shakespeare wrote to put asses in seats, just like me.” I understand what he’s saying, but I think it’s frightfully wrong-headed. Certainly Shakey was an actor and producer as well as playwright, and consequently wanted his plays to make money, as much money as was possible, and to that end was probably willing to engage in all sorts of hi-jinks. But that is the nature of theater: hi-jinks. He could have skipped writing speeches like “Now are our revels ended” and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” and “when the mind’s free, the body’s delicate,” not to mention really tricky stuff like you find in “A Winter’s Tale” if all he wanted to do was put asses in seats, to do “nothing for himself” and “everything for his audience.”
We writers and readers are nearly identical. We live in the same world. The variations are mostly superficial. We can’t help but write for our readers–even if openly defy such a “constraint.” But to think, oh man, my readers won’t get this or won’t like this or whatever, and to edit and revise yourself simply and solely because you want broader appeal and easier (faster, more remunerative) consumption…well shit, there are thousands of entertainers willing to do that. Why not be one of the few, the proud, the brave?