The Rumpus Interview w/ David Mitchell

The Rumpus has an interview I did with the brilliant British novelist David Mitchell. Read it here.

After the interview, he pulled a slim volume from his rucksack and read me his favorite poem in the world, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright.

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

About the poem Mitchell said,”It’s quite possibly impossible to say what’s transcendent about the transcendent, because that’s why it’s transcendent. I could spend eight hundred words why that poems gives me goose bumps every time I read it, but the ambiguity of the last line—that he has and he hasn’t wasted his life, because he realizes it, at least—I’ve felt that too, but I could never have said it. It reduces you to bumbling, stumbling inarticulacy.”

More about the poem: “I gave a lecture once on the imagination at the University of Leuven in Belgium, at which the mayor of the city and the British and Japanese ambassadors were all present. Without giving them any warning, I invited them up onstage to read from three poems in their own languages about the imagination, and this was the poem I made the British ambassador read.”

“You made the British ambassador say, out loud, in public, ‘I have wasted my life’?”

“It was my finest hour.”

The World According To DFW

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has been on a spending spree for years, purchasing the papers of literary titans like James Agee, Norman Mailer, and Don DeLillo (among innumerable others).

Now, they’ve added David Foster Wallace’s sprawling scribblings to their collection, much of it available online. Highlights include a handwritten early draft of Infinite Jest, books from Wallace’s personal collection, featuring his chicken-scratch marginalia, a dictionary with words Wallace circled–which probably came in handy during the composing of his landmark essay “Present Tense: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” first published in the April 2001 Harper’s. The manuscript of the elusive Pale King is there, as well.

Here’s Wallace’s longtime agent, Bonnie Nadell, on how the DFW papers ended up at UT-Austin:

Organizing David Wallace’s papers for an archive was not a task I would wish on many people. Some writers leave their papers organized, boxed, and with careful markers, David left his work in a dark, cold garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever. His wife and I took plastic bins and cardboard boxes and desk drawers and created an order out of chaos, putting manuscripts for each book together and writing labels in magic markers.

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a “look ma no hands” kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are. How a character’s name was gone over and over until it became the right one. How David looked through his dictionaries making notes, writing phrases of dialogue in his notebooks, and his excitement in discovering a wild new word to use.

Barry Hannah on WWII & Writing

The great lit Web site The Rumpus has an intriguing piece about the late, great Barry Hannah. Apparently he was a bit of a WWII buff and gave a lecture at Bennington entitled “Military History as Regards Fiction: The Unquenchable Thirst about World War II.” Man, what I would’ve given to have been there.

Brooklyn writer A.N. Devers, who was lucky enough to have been in attendance, writes:

In the lecture he explored how a generation of soldiers came back from the war with a passion for literature. He mentioned that returning vets enrolled in school, feeling that they didn’t have time to “mess around.” Barry identified with the returning Vietnam vets and said an MFA program saved his life. He reminded his audience that the “greatest generation” had been fighting “real evil.” He said something about how he wasn’t impressed by science fiction and that “nonsense in outer space” because it had already happened – even Star Wars had the Nazi helmet. He said that Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Gore Vidal didn’t expect to be as educated as they were, or own the world as they did, or be a part of the only nation to drop an A-bomb in 1945. He mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Iraq, and Iran – and that we can’t really know what these wars are like for the silent men who return – those suffering with PTSD. There were a lot of one-liners in this lecture. My notes say: A writer is not romantic … but better be having fun. He said: “I think you can imagine my almost total disinterest in e-mail.” The lecture is also filled with mantras: People didn’t die in vain. A single person could make a difference. You’ve got to teach something to exist. You’ve got to act to exist. I thought existentialism meant you’ve got to have a turtleneck and smoke cigarettes. It’s harder and harder to write because you don’t have to surprise anyone anymore. The best job you can do is not to know more, but to know what you like, and like it passionately. The lecture, despite my inability to tie everything together here, was exceedingly well constructed.

He said, in closing: “I grew up believing life is precious. Objects are precious.” He listed the pencil, the pen, and the Smith-Corona Electric. He quoted Solzhenitsyn and talked about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. He encouraged us to sit in a room alone and show what we can do.

On Reality & Its Discontents

Quite possibly the most brazenly insubordinate and thought-provoking book I have read since Walter Benjamin‘s landmark essay “The Work of Art In the Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” is David Shields’s highly hyped “manifesto,” Reality Hunger. (Inverted sentence structure intended, BTW.)

I don’t know if I am yet prepared to follow Shields into the novels-are-not-really-novels wilderness, but I do share his frustration with the reading and writing of fiction nowadays. This frustration, it seems, is infectious: see Zadie Smith‘s bracing Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, in which she questions the purpose of the novelist in today’s world.

As Shields has it,

[Writing fiction] feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in a costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody.


Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real.

and even

I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.

A deserved slap to the side of the faces of storytellers, perhaps. A conversation starter, at least.

What is more real? So-called nonfiction (“reality”) or so-called novels (“imagination”)? What is the relationship between reality and the imagination? Why would anyone read–or, for that matter, write–novels in this day an age, when oftentimes the reading public will gravitate toward the nonfiction tome over the novel? These are trenchant, age-old questions that harken back to that perennial candidate for the first novel ever, Don Quixote. For me, the fiction/nonfiction debate (“throwdown”?) strikes a personal chord. It’s no secret my first novel came out in the overwrought shadow of that other book about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and, as Shields and Smith would have it, it’s also no secret readers devoured the nonfictional version of the story with more ferocity than they did the fictional version. (I don’t mean to imply my book is any better than the other, I-still-cannot-bear-to-utter-its-name book.)

As I feverishly read Reality Hunger–and, earlier today, a frolicsome chat with Shields over at The Millions–I was frequently reminded of something Richard Powers said to me in our Believer interview:

A chemist can say how atoms bond. A molecular biologist can say how a mutagen disrupts a chemical bond and causes a mutation. A geneticist can identify a mutation and develop a working screen for it. Clergy and ethicists can debate the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. A journalist can interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are wrestling with their faith while seeking to bear a child free of inheritable disease. But only a novelist can put all these actors and dozens more into the shared story they all tell, and make that story rearrange some readers’ viscera.

As I’m once again lost at sea with a longer fictional project, I sure hope he’s right.

Most Influential Novels of the Decade

Not the “best,” necessarily, but these are the novels, I think, which will cast the longest shadows to the writers of the future.

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Tie: Ian McEwan, Atonement; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

James Frey, A Million Little Pieces (now that we know it’s a novel)

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas–although I am tempted to say The 9/11 Commission Report: if, as DeLillo alleged, the Warren Report was the greatest novel since Finnegans Wake, then surely The 9/11 Commission Report must at least be a novel (if not exactly Jamesian).

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Padgett Powell, The Interrogative Mood