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Within the Free Space of Writing: An Interview with Charles Holdefer

By Curtis Smith


Charles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels, Belgium. He is the author of five novels, including Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots, and his story collection Agitprop for Bedtime was recently published by Sagging Meniscus. According to Rain Taxi Review, this collection is “a gem of a book…with a zany sense of humor.” Holdefer’s fiction has appeared in magazines including The New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review, Los Angeles Review, and Slice. His story “The Raptor” was chosen for the 2017 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Agitprop for Bedtime: Polemic, Story Problems, Kulturporn and Humdingers. Would you address how you started to work with them—and perhaps address the value of developing these kinds of multi-book ties, especially in the indie-press world?

Charles Holdefer: Not many publishing houses are open to experimental work, but Sagging Meniscus is, and it has a series called Sagging Shorts. These are small books that fit in your pocket, like the old City Lights issues of Allen Ginsberg. A few years ago, I queried the editor, Jacob Smullyan, with an odd little book called Dick Cheney in Shorts. Lucky for me, he took it on, and since then he’s done a couple of other shorties with me, as well as a straight-up novel, Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots. I feel very lucky to have found a press that does attractive books that are playful and serious at the same time.

The cover art is by Royce Becker. It is very sad news that Royce passed away recently. She did wonderful work. For another pocket book of mine, Magic Even You Can Do, she also provided illustrations to accompany the text. I never had the pleasure of meeting Royce personally, but she “got it” immediately, and created stylized Edwardian images that became an integral part of the whole. She improved the book. It’s a rare thing to collaborate with such a generous and insightful stranger. She will be greatly missed.

Smith: Agitprop for Bedtime is a great title. Would you tell us how you got to that?

Holdefer: I liked the premise of bedtime stories for adults. My love of literature goes back to when I was a kid and heard stories read aloud, before I could read, myself. Some of the pieces in this collection have a “once-upon-a-time” flavor, and most are very short. Some of them are overtly political, hence the “agitprop.” That term can be used pejoratively but I’d like to rehabilitate it. A lot of political writing simply respects formulas and quickly becomes predictable. I want something that can still surprise our hive mind.

Smith: Let’s backtrack to your early love of hearing stories read to you. I like listening to recorded books and stories. I think it engages a different part of my brain, one that enjoys language in a forgotten way. But this past semester, I had my writing classes listen to recordings of stories (mainly the New Yorker’s podcast series), and while some enjoyed it, most didn’t—at least not as much as I’d hoped. How about you? Does the adult Charles enjoy listening to stories? Or do you find yourself wishing to experience it via print?

Holdefer: I rarely listen to recorded stories. But I still often read aloud. It’s not just for kids. This was a rediscovery for me a number of years ago. My wife and I were on a long bicycle trip, we were camping, there were no smart phones or TV, and we read aloud Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I’d never gotten round to reading it before, mainly out of laziness, I suppose. It’s a Victorian triple-decker, thick as a brick. But cut off from other distractions, and probably not trusting my patience to read it silently like a normal adult, I enlisted the attention of my wife, who agreed to humor me.

We got hooked. I was all wrong about Vanity Fair. It skips right along, in short tasty chapters, perfect for a road trip. We’ve been reading aloud ever since. We’ve done hundreds of books. There’s a big difference between listening to a recorded stranger and forming the words with your own mouth, feeling an individual author’s inflections. You can interact with your listener, too, repeat a line or crack up at a joke. An audiobook won’t interact with you. Adults easily forget this social activity, while children grasp it early, when they latch onto a favorite story and insist on reading it aloud, over and over. They already know the story; they could recite by heart. But they prefer a shared experience.

So I’ve become a bit of a proselytizer about reading aloud. Recently, I wrote an essay about it, how it’s not a quack pursuit. Rain Taxi Review of Books ran a friendly review of Agitprop, so I sent them the essay. They’ve kindly agreed to publish it, though I don’t know when it’ll come out. Sometime in 2021.

Smith: There are seventeen pieces here, and you take on a wide range of topics—health care, for-profit prisons, the culture wars, the smugness of conspicuous caring, general despair, standing for the flag, and male arousal products (those last two in the same story!). It’s a pretty disparate list—but to me, the whole thing seemed rather united. I read the book in one sitting in the week before the election—and perhaps it was that background of heightened anxiety and doom-scrolling, but to me, the book read like a kind of post-mortem on our sorry current state, like seventeen Lilliputian ropes pinning down one big, drunk Gulliver. Am I on target here? Did you see this collection as a kind of modern kaleidoscope of our messed up reality?

Holdefer: Funny you mention Gulliver—I’ve just been rereading it (silently!)—and I see exactly what you mean, but there wasn’t a preconceived design. The stories started as stand-alone pieces for various magazines, out of which a general sensibility emerges, at least I hope so. Most of the narration follows a fairly traditional “what if” or “once-upon-a-time” premise, even if some of the particular examples can get weird.

Any sense of the kaleidoscopic probably comes from the language. I like to experiment with different kinds of English. Or Englishes, I should say. That always fascinates me. How do you tell a love story in the language of a conglomerate’s catalogue? Or like a story problem in a mathematics textbook? There are other pieces written in the language of medical reports, or investment news broadcasts, or charity fundraisers, or fulsome letters of recommendation. These are idiosyncratic dialects, languages within our language. We use them all the time, shifting from dialect to dialect, and often we’re even not conscious of it. We can be manipulated by them. Or we can try to do something interesting with them.

Smith: Let me follow up on that—the Englishes notion. Do you sometimes find yourself doing something mundane—reading a train schedule perhaps or a recipe—and then a light comes on and you think you could use it as a structure? Did some of these stories first come to you in terms of form—and then character and situation followed?

Holdefer: A form can enable a realization of a possibility. I’m sure poets have a lot to say about this. For me, as a prose writer, my character and situation also need to be hovering nearby, somewhere in consciousness. If the light comes on, I hope it reveals somebody standing in the room! Otherwise, I can’t go on. Form alone won’t do it. Fiction needs character. Without people, there’s no party.

Smith: Despite the seriousness of the time I read this, I laughed all the way through—but it was the kind of laugh that lapsed into a sigh and then kept me up at night. We know each other in real life—and I don’t think our sensibilities are too different—yet when I look around, I can’t write anything but gloom and horror. You’re seeing the same thing and write something funny. I admit I’m pretty envious of this—what kind of lens are you looking through? Is this some kind of gallows humor or is there something more?

Holdefer: I don’t know. You’ve probably heard the Kurt Vonnegut line, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion.” So, yes, we’re seeing the same thing. But maybe it’s like a musical score, where an individual singer’s voice produces a decidedly different effect, from Tom Waits to Minnie Riperton, even for the same tune. Does that analogy make sense? Maybe not. I’m a terrible singer!

But probably every writer should aspire to have it both ways. Shakespeare’s best jokes are in King Lear, there’s no doubt in my mind, and that play is about as bleak as you can get.

Smith: I think Vonnegut did that with a lot of his life—having experienced such horror in the war, I think he had no choice. Freud said pretty much the same thing. Perhaps next time I see you we can do karaoke and I can be the judge of how terrible your voice is. If that were to go down, what would your jukebox choice be?

Holdefer: You’re playing with fire here. Put me down for Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space.”

Smith: You live in Europe, and I’m guessing the news from back home is easily accessible, but I’m also guessing you’re spared the continuous noise and outrage that dominates our twenty-four-hour news cycle. How does this bit of balance and distance affect a work like this? I’ve got to think the perspective must help you get a better view.

Holdefer: If not a better view, at least it’s easier to hold a different view. There are other competing news and different sets of problems. All kinds of stuff that doesn’t revolve around an American president who is very fond of the sound of his own name.

I don’t feel like an expatriate exactly, because that term usually evokes a certain rootlessness. There’s sometimes an arty pose, as if being cold in Paris instead of Spokane or wherever is somehow more meaningful. Actually, I’m a guy with a day job who plays by the local rules and language.

With Agitprop for Bedtime, I don’t pretend to have an answer to American polarization, but when I choose a side, and often I do choose sides, I’m not going to be shy. Socially, I try to get along with people across the spectrum, but in the free space of writing, I honestly can’t be too bothered by what passes for good manners. The writing must come first. And this has nothing to do with the coy apology when someone says, “I-know-this-is-not-politically-correct-but” and then goes on to spout some bullshit that is rooted in cliché. A rhetorical flourish doesn’t relieve a person of the responsibility to use imagination. Imagination isn’t synonymous with morality, but a lack of imagination will sink even the most rigorous moral codes. This can also be a problem with high church wokeness, which in some contexts makes it easier for the “not-politically-correct-but” people to cast themselves as victims. The two sides need each other, which is ironic, since they loathe each other. I’m speaking broadly here, at the risk of creating my own cliché. I can’t speak for anyone but myself and I might very well screw that up. A book is something you can finish. A self is a work-in-progress.

Smith: What’s next?

Holdefer: Wish I knew! Agitprop is a little book and I have longer stories and novels on the boil. I know I’ll be busy this winter, which is a good feeling.


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