I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg

October 12, 2015 | 8 books mentioned 9 24 min read

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Garth Risk Hallberg first appeared in my inbox in 2009 through the mediating voice of Max Magee, the founder of this site. Max wrote in gentle tones that, while he and his partner welcomed my contributions to The Millions, they both felt that “war is peace, bitches” was not a useful embellishment to a work of criticism (a note so self-evident that I couldn’t take it personally). In the subsequent years I’ve gotten to know Garth a little — as an intensely committed reader, a generous colleague quick with encouragement, and the proponent of an egregious class of pun. He is also the author of criticism that I hesitate to call forbidding only because I suspect that it wounds him.

Garth has a medieval intellect: free access to a vast array of texts, of points and counterpoints, which he is able to call forth from an internal commonplace book at a moment’s notice. This intellect is evident in pieces like  “How Avant Is It?” or “Why Write Novels at All?”; the former references 50 names and nearly as many texts. These aren’t wielded like bludgeons, rather placed deftly and precisely around his writing — points on a schematic drawing showing in bewildering detail something familiar you’d looked at but never really seen. Garth’s intimidating schemata are illuminated by something friendly, though — the light of a true flashlight-under-the-covers reader, one unafraid to issue calls to arms for capital-A Art:

…we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla…and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide.

When Garth wrote the above, in 2011, it’s unlikely he knew just how much cultural hoopla he would himself one day generate. The revelation of the startlingly large advance for City on Fire — an advance unprecedented for a 900-page debut — caused a slight distortion in the fabric of the universe. I never expected to see, as I did last week and which it will also undoubtedly wound him to mention, a photo of Garth in Vogue, wearing costly designer items and looking like a goddamned matinee idol.

coverGarth’s previous published work, a novella called A Field Guide to the North American Family, made heavy use of photography and textual fragments to propel a surprisingly tender work of fireflies-and-cigarettes Americana. When City on Fire arrived, I noted the visual elements — the recreated pages of a punk girl’s ‘zine, a journalist’s whisky-ringed article draft, a patriarch’s handwritten letter. Taking these, with the novel’s size, with the $2 million, with the monastic vastness of the author’s frame of reference, I had, frankly, no idea what to expect.

What I found was not the terrifying post-modern edifice I feared, but something warm and generous. Something beautifully written, fantastically plotted — something suspenseful and moving and full of interesting people and ideas. It’s a book written to create communion between reader and writer. It is also a book that, despite its frequent appearance in articles on the current popular interest in the New York of the 1970s — despite its rhetorical signposts, its blighted streets, its Patti Smith soundtrack — feels contemporary and fresh.

There are other big books that have caused people to mention Charles Dickens and for which “accessibility” is actually a subtle neg; this is not the case for City on Fire, which deftly gathers up the stories of over a dozen people, half-a-dozen “scenes,” and one teeming city in careful prose, with a reverence and faith that escape naivete only because they are the things that motivate all great stories. As one of Garth’s characters, the veteran reporter Richard Groskoph, puts it

What he wanted above all to get right was the web of relationships a dozen column inches had never been enough to contain…He wanted to follow the soul far enough out along these lines of relationship to discover that there was no fixed point where one person ended and another began.

I spoke to Garth in the weeks before publication, when he was going to a lot of matinees to kill time and, at his wife’s behest, avoiding pregnancy metaphors to describe the surreal anticipatory state he occupied. No one is more startled by all the hoopla than Garth himself. That said, I think there is a way in which, like any writer, he has spent his life preparing for the contingency (playfully referenced in his character Mercer’s imaginary Paris Review interviews, daydreamed when production on the great American novel had stalled). I asked Garth how he went about transforming from critic to novelist, and how he navigated, in his novel, those lines of relationship–those deep places where the author and world collide.

The Millions: When we started this conversation via email, you mentioned that you were already writing fiction when you “walked backward” into reviewing: what does that mean? I don’t think I actually know, or remember, how you got started with The Millions.

coverGarth Risk Hallberg: That’s a bit of a long story, but basically I met Max when I was 17, in Washington, D.C. I had grown up in North Carolina, on tobacco road. “Down East.” My town was a college town, but a small one, and such elements of college culture as we got largely involved keg stands and pool halls. Both of which I came to appreciate as a teenager — but it lacked that density of record stores and plays and paintings or whatever it was that I was probably hungry for. So I was a voracious reader from an early age: novels and nonfiction and increasingly poetry. And then the summer I was 16 I was working in a radiologist’s office, literally typing Social Security Numbers into a computer for minimum wage and spending the proceeds on, um, various forms of contraband, and my mom said, “That is not going to look very good on your college application.” I told her I wasn’t going to apply for college. We went back and forth about it, and she finally in a fit of despair suggested a residential poetry workshop at Duke at the end of the summer. I think her pitch was that it was only a week long. So I went up there, and naturally it was instantly like, “My god, a community!” What’s that line from the end of Jesus’ Son? “Freaks like us?”

[Supplies clarification via email: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”]

Among them was a kid from Washington, D.C., named Derek, who became a close friend. And I started going up to D.C., which was about a five-hour drive from where I lived. On the weekends and in the summers, I’d drive up and find a place to crash and hang out with Derek and his friends, all of whom seemed bewitchingly well-read and creative. And also very wholesome in a strange way. I should emphasize that the teenage culture where I was from was not one of great psychic or spiritual health. Like, the group of people I’d been ratting around with included, on its periphery, a couple runaways and a small arms dealer.

And I think I had a tropism for cities already, but I’d never been to New York, I’d never been to Paris or San Francisco or LA or anything — so to me D.C. was at that point the paradigmatic big city. Max was a friend of Derek’s. So Max and I hung out a lot. And then I started using D.C. as a jumping-off point for raids on New York.

TM: And when did The Millions enter the picture?

GRH: I guess that was after I got out of grad school. I’d gone to NYU after having spent three post-college years in the workforce in D.C. and not liking what I’d seen. That’s actually not entirely true, but…

TM: What kind of work?

GRH: My first job out of college was writing Internet content, which paid shockingly well but was not good for the world. But a couple months into that came September 11. And in the aftermath, I quit that job and went to teach elementary school for two years.

TM: Like how some people joined the army.

GRH: Well, I’m a lover, not a fighter. In any case, I had surrendered by then to the fact that I was not, or was no longer, America’s Greatest Living Teenage Poet. But I’d been writing fiction steadily, and in the fall of 2001, for inexplicable reasons, the fiction started to feel really alive. All of a sudden, I started to feel like I was good at it. When it got to where I couldn’t split time with teaching, I applied to graduate school, which was also an excuse for my wife and me to move to New York. And then a couple years later, in maybe 2007, Max called and said, “You read a lot of books, and I’m turning The Millions into a group blog — will you contribute?” So I did one thing, and I think we maybe got an email from the person under review, saying, “I had written off blogs as this hysterical thing, but this piece is actually thoughtful.” I’m sure you’ve gotten those emails, too; they’re gratifying. It’s a very direct connection. So I started writing reviews alongside the fiction. I didn’t really know what I was doing as a reviewer, besides thinking through questions of aesthetics. But I knew what I didn’t want to do.

TM: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read some of those works of criticism — the pieces like “How Avant Is It?” I remember writing you some cringe-inducing emails in the past asking how you got so smart. I find it astonishing that you can write these dense essays and simultaneously be writing such an expansive and, accessible is not the word, imagine-a-better-word novel. You’re a Pierre Bourdieu in the streets but a, um, Dickens in the sheets.

GRH: Well, maybe another way of phrasing your generous response to the novel is that I haven’t yet managed to hit the mark I’d like to in the critical writing. Because to the degree that there’s anything intimidating about the voice of the criticism, then I’ve failed in my attempt to make something demotic and beautiful. And I should also say, about those pieces, that maybe I manage to be more humane and given to levity in the mode of praise than in the mode of attack. It took me a long time to get over “Somebody said something wrong on the Internet” and to just find something to hold up for praise. My favorite piece I wrote for the site is probably the one on Deborah Eisenberg. And of course in the essays you cited above, I’m kind of covertly working out some ideas about my own fiction.

But in any case, the rhetoric of fiction is so different. If being a passionate amateur is a rhetorical complication you have to deal with starting out as a critic, it’s an asset, or even a birthright, for the novelist. Or anyway, for this novelist. Or that’s my opinion. Instead of needing to establish you know something, you’re more credible as a novelist establishing that you don’t understand something, that you’re seeking to fathom the unfathomable. There’s more room for mystery. Things can be both true and false at the same time — true for one character, false for another; right in one context, wrong in another. You have to be willing to be duped, Henry James says. That’s sort of my standard for “irony” in the novel, and I guess it creates kind of a gentler temperament.

TM: When you say that the rhetoric of fiction is different than writing criticism — is there a time when you sit down and say “I’m being too arch right now, I’m being too knowing, I’m using some kind of device that I would use when I’m writing criticism”?

GRH: I’m tempted to say, conversely, that the voice of the fiction just comes more naturally to me, but I’d be using the adverb in a very peculiar, almost technical sense. Because writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”

I tend to forget this about other writers, because I read as if the person doing the writing were speaking. So if an essay takes 45 minutes to read, I have this kind of unexamined assumption that it also took 45 minutes to produce. And then it’s like, “Damn, E.B. White is so natural, he writes with such ease, how does he do that?” But I know from experience that no, no, no, that’s an 18th draft and he spent months and months and months pulling his hair out to get there.

What I can say is that fiction is the first writing I do every day. And if there’s a day — and there have been many in the last couple of years — when I’m only going to have room for one or the other, fiction or essay, I’m always going to choose fiction. Because writing nonfiction doesn’t make me less crazy in the way that fiction does.

For me in a piece of fiction when everything is working, everything is embodied and incarnate, and sometimes ideas that are illogical or I don’t agree with or seem silly to me in real life suddenly become compelling because a fictional person believes in them. And that’s maybe part of the strangeness of the rhetoric of fiction.

TM: It’s funny because I kind of think of you just sitting down and speaking the novel to an extent. I think of it as being narrated by a generous late-20th-century god with an extensive vocabulary who periodically zeroes in on the respective consciousnesses of the characters.

GRH: That’s sort of what I mean about belief and the fictional person. You dig a little way into that, and it opens up all kinds of bizarre logical problems and mysteries and circles to be squared involving subjectivity and objectivity. This novel is clearly a deep attempt to be “with” the characters, but also to make them meaningful by knitting them together into something larger.

So I wanted the narrative voice to be constantly modulating between the poles of total objectivity and total subjectivity — but only ever actually touching one or the other pole in a few select places. And using a broad vocabulary gave me the room to dial up or down the degree of slanginess or rhetoric or whatever as we move in and out. To send a constantly modulating signal about vector and position. Rather than free indirect style just being a switch you flip — now in character; now out of character — I wanted it to have what Kurt Cobain once described as “psychedelic” dynamics.

[Supplies Cobain quote via email: “I wanted to learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way but with a lot more structure.”]

Which is also closer to how I experience life.

covercoverAnd somehow the interludes in City on Fire, those first-person “documents,” are related to that. I thought a lot about how the enjambment of Esther’s first-person voice and Dickens’s third-person voice works in Bleak House, even though it “doesn’t work.” Or, like, the letters in Herzog. I’m pretty sure Bellow was frustrated with having to choose first or third person, and kind of wanted the resources of both, us being both inside and outside of Herzog, and just is like, “A-ha! The letters!” As the Dude says, there are a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what have-yous. [Garbled sound of talking with phone covered.] Sorry — the exterminator and my landlady were walking around.

TM: What do you need to exterminate? What do you have?

GRH: We’ve got some mice. We’ve got a few mice.

TM: Aww.

GRH: Which I’d rather not exterminate. Maybe rodent prophylaxis is what we’re trying to practice here. [More discussion with landlady, exterminator.] Where were we?

TM: The ins and outs and what-have-yous. Which extend beyond the characters and the voice to the plot. Did you have to create a map for yourself ahead of time?

GRH: Well, in a very strange way — a way that’s almost mystical — I already had a lot of the book ahead of time. I’d had this sort of vision, which I’ve probably beaten to death in other interviews…

TM: The famous bus.

GRH: Right, on a Greyhound from D.C. to New York, to scope out places to live, and as improbable as it sounds, in the space of 45 seconds or however long it was, a lot of things — characters, architecture, images, events, scenes — sort of all came at me at once. But it was like getting a box of puzzle pieces in the mail. You can tell how big the puzzle is going to be, roughly, and how intricate, and what the color scheme is, but you don’t necessarily know whether the piece you’re holding is the upper-left or the lower-right corner. Nor do you know how everything connects. And mapping it all out ahead of time may close off certain intuitive leaps.

I had this dream — I still have this dream — of the novel, what D.H. Lawrence called “the big bright book of life,” being as organic as a tree. In order for a tree to achieve its shape, it has to grow and respond to all kinds of obstacles and dry years and wet years. So even in this case of extreme complication I was reluctant to do any kind of formal outlining. If I’m verbally tracing over something that’s already been outlined in schematic or graphic form the words just die. And maybe this is an overlap with how I feel about essays: the feeling of the writer being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a reader, and the feeling of being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a writer, because something has just emerged that I was not capable of producing through purposeful thinking. It’s bigger than me.

Anyway, I just kind of wrote and wrote and arrived at a process that seemed to work, stitching together pieces and seeing what fit. And some answers would come to me very quickly, and some would come after a lot of trial and error. And some came while I was sleeping.

TM: Like what, for example?

GRH: Like the design stuff. I had this dream in what was probably spring of 2008, early on in the writing of the novel. And, peculiarly, I saw the finished book. This wasn’t under the sign of anxiety, as much of the rest of my life is — it was a dream of, like, feeling joyful and at peace. Me handing the book to a reader, a specific person in my life. And inside the book, some of the pages looked a little funny. And I woke up and thought, “Well, that’s odd.” But I guess that’s what it turned out to be.

TM: One thing I’ve learned about you from this is that you are kind of a Desert Father, having visions and dreams. Do you have signs and portents all the time, or were they specific to this book?

GRH: It may just be that I’m very suggestible. Maybe the delinquent habit reading trains you into is to be highly suggestible, so that if someone writes that Character X is performing Action Y, you say, “Oh, yes, I can see that.” So by the same token, if my son says, “Dad, you’re stepping on the sidewalk cracks!” there’s a very real part of me that wants to call my mother. Opening umbrellas indoors, all that kind of stuff, I’m very superstitious about. I’m tempted to say very California, but I don’t want…

TM: I live in California and I’m exactly the same way.

GRH: Well, you’re a good reader. So you’re also highly suggestible. Of all the people writing regularly for The Millions you and I probably have the most similar relationship to literature. And superstition is also just a kind of Pascal’s Wager. You know, just in case.

coverBut that was part of the attraction to writing for me. I always saw it as intrinsically related to dreams and visions and the whole gnostic thing, the call from the beyond. I’ve basically been writing since I was six, and I think of it as a vocation more than a profession, both because it’s a preposterous profession, which remunerates very few people in ways that allow them to live in the world, and also because it just seemed like…Have you read The Gift? Lewis Hyde?

TM: No.

GRH: You should read it! You would love it. And not to presuppose that I had any talent as a kid, or do now, but it seemed to me from a very early age that writing was something I had to do. It felt like a gift in the sense that it was given to me, not by me — it didn’t feel like a choice. I thought when I was a teenager that this meant I would become a poet. And I did not turn out to have a gift in the senses that are required to do that. But I still think of that — being a poet — as the purest and holiest and (interestingly) least professional way of being a writer.

But the job posting for Poet, in the mind of the 15-year-old beatnik, is like, Duties include: Must spend lots of time walking around waiting for signals from the universe. I think a lot of that stuff has stayed with me, both because I remain inordinately attached to the person that I was when I was 17 and wanted to be Rimbaud, and also because no superior way of making sense of the universe has yet presented itself. So I remember at that age driving around at night and having the streetlights go out right at the moment I drove under them. And the rational explanation is that there was something electromagnetic going on with my car. But how do you then explain that exactly the song I needed to hear came on at exactly that moment on the radio? And I experienced that as a profound moment. No amount of disillusioning can ever persuade me that it wasn’t a profound experience.

Two other things occur to me on the question of superstition. One is that the whole writing thing is just sort of magic or alchemy. I was talking to someone last night about questions that make writers groan, and this person pointed to “How much of the work is autobiographical?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” And I was thinking that, yes, okay, those questions are sort of banal (even as they underpin so many higher-order interview questions). But also that maybe there is something of anthropological interest in the fact that people keep asking them and gravitating toward them. Like, maybe one of the interesting things about the question of autobiography is that it remains a mystery — and the reason it drives writers crazy to be asked it is that they can’t answer. Who the hell knows where the ideas come from? And who the hell knows how much of the work is you and how much of it is not? We live in an age that is mildly allergic to those kinds of mysteries. But if you sort of consecrate your life to something that brings you face to face with those mysteries on a daily basis, you learn to respect them, or leave room for them to just be, and maybe that encourages tolerance for all sorts of other weird behavior. It’s like the baseball player who doesn’t wash his jockstrap. I don’t usually wear a jockstrap when writing, and if I did I’d like to think that I’d keep it in good repair, but I understand the mentality.

coverThe second possible account of the superstition would be that it’s less a concomitant of the underlying mysteries than a mask you put on them. I’ve never been very trusting of what writers said about their own writing — I remember this came from E.L. Doctorow and it might be apocryphal, but something about Lawrence claiming to have finished a draft of Aaron’s Rod or whatever and to have turned it over face-down on the desk and written the next draft never looking at the first one. Doctorow’s surmise was that this was probably bullshit. But in order to leave room for mysteries, maybe sometimes you kind of concoct these fictions about how and why you’re doing what you’re doing, which are not true but you believe them to be true, and they help you not to look at the real reasons or to try to find out what the real reasons are. So I feel like some of that writerly mumbo-jumbo may just be a way of attempting to preserve…

I’m sounding really new-agey about this.

TM: I’m hearing that writing is a kind of cult, not in the sense of Jonestown, but of Delphi, oracles, gases coming out of vents in the earth and so forth.

GRH: I’m thinking more about the double-edged nature of self-consciousness. On one hand, as a writer you have to be really self-conscious. And I haven’t even figured out, and don’t know if I want to examine too closely, whether it’s a constant thing or whether you’re toggling back and forth — but at least periodically you’re moving into the reader position and becoming conscious of yourself as you will sound to the reader. But then, too much self-consciousness is totally paralyzing. It seems practically, even if it is not empirically, a very weird and mysterious thing. And then you write the book and the book gets published and you sit down to write the next book, and the fact that you’re all the way back at the blank page trying to figure out how you did it last time just speaks to the mystery.

TM: There were so many moments when I would think, “Hmm, Garth is somehow now a 24-year-old gay black man from Georgia, or a 36-year-old woman recovering from an eating disorder.” And not in some shoddy “He couldn’t stop being himself” way, but in a way that I could feel some fundamental connection and sympathy with the characters.

GRH: I’m flattered, because that was very much how I thought about the ambition of the book. There’s a great Mark Singer profile of David Milch, who’s the creator of Hill Street Blues and Deadwood, and Milch is like emerging from a somewhat dissolute background of addiction and pain via a lot of crazy and superstitious ways of thinking about Art. He’s one of those guys who will capitalize Art and not put it in quotation marks. And it might be generationally just not attainable for me, but I aspire to be the kind of person who can write Art with a capital A and no quotation marks, because that’s how much it meant to me and still means to me. When I was 17 it meant that to me every day, all day — in a very real way, it saved my life — whereas now at 36 I fall slightly out of contact hour by hour with all that Art can mean. But when it’s really operating on me it’s definitely a capitalization-with-no-quotation-marks thing. Anyway Milch, in this profile, uses the phrase, which I think he gets from one of St. Paul’s epistles: “Going out in spirit.” And Art-making for me is a going out in spirit. With this book, I thought that — I don’t even know where the characters came from, but they came to me in this solid form, and I thought, I have to find a way to go out in spirit to them. “Compassion” means suffering with. So I had to compassionate, or suffer, with these characters. And pretty early on, I realized the question I had to keep in mind was “How is this person me?” Because they are all me. They all have to be me, or the book won’t work.

TM: The ones for whom you feel that — or the reader feels that — it’s all the good guys. There’s a distance between the narrator and the bad guys.

GRH: That might be a failing of the novel!

TM: No, because structurally it should be that way. Why should the person who is coming out with this narrative — why should he be able to… Okay, no spoilers. Well, no, I’m not quite right, you do get some backstory for the Goulds, but that’s biography.

GRH: It was complicated for me because I think I really want, philosophically, to have the bad guys, the antagonist figures, be as fully human…I think of this as the Dick Cheney Problem. It goes like this: I know philosophically that Dick Cheney is human to Dick Cheney, and to his wife and daughters and friends, and that his inner life is as rich as mine, but I’m not quite a good enough novelist to understand what it might be like to be Dick Cheney.

And what you end up with if you subscribe to the Dick Cheney Problem is you have antagonists who don’t participate in the full breadth of the writer’s sympathies. This may feel a little bit 19th-century, and that’s not displeasing to me. I mean, Dick Cheney is a little 19th-century. Still…

coverOne of the books that was sort of on my mind as I wrote was Demons, the Dostoevsky book. Stavrogin has great vitality, but I don’t remember him having as much interiority as, say, Ivan Karamazov does. And I think what fascinated me about Amory Gould, the worst actor in City on Fire, is that here’s someone who, if I get inside him, has all the things that I have as his author. He has the means to know everybody’s secrets, and he has the means to plot, like a novelist does, and he is very intelligent, but he doesn’t have…he can’t go out in spirit. He’s spiritually defective. Or rather, I hope we see, damaged. And without the strange ineffable thing that we were gesturing at earlier, all of the concrete talents and drive required to make a fiction won’t work. People won’t achieve their destinies within the story because you won’t be able to understand them.

But it’s nice, I guess, that the book is long enough to have problems for me as a writer, things I can’t decide whether they are what I wanted. Though that may be another enabling fiction: the book wanted it that way, and I’m the innocent bystander. Anyway, I’m glad you picked up on that Amory thing, because it definitely stood out for me. Maybe I don’t have enough evil in my soul.

TM: There’s the authenticity of character, and then there’s authenticity of, I guess, scene. On that score, did you worry about the punk stuff? Is that a scene you were familiar with, in its contemporary iteration?

GRH: My canon at 15 would have been Kerouac, Brautigan…you can fill in that whole canon. Hippies, proto-hippies, and post-hippies. And also heavy doses of Stephen King. But yes, when I was in D.C. and for three years after college I was kind of hanging around the punk scene there, which was still very small. Or not small, but a size where everybody knew everybody. Small enough to have that feeling of being a community. It was also intensely political and creative and just a fascinating contrast to the more louche, symbolist New York punk scene of the ’70s. There’s actually a good story about Minor Threat coming up to play New York with Bad Brains and being like, “Screw this place, you guys are all junkies.”

The thing that really struck me about the punk scene in the ’90s was how creative it was. It was about making things, making your own bands, making your own ‘zines, making your own fashions, making your own life — and judging people not by the aesthetic content of how they presented themselves but by how much effort had gone into creating themselves. But I loved both sides of the music and both sides of the impulse, both the creative and the destructive or nihilist. The sort of Thanatos and Eros — and those two things seemed ultimately to thread together for me most satisfyingly in Patti Smith.

So when I realized I was going to write this book, one of the thrills was knowing that all these feelings about punk and what it had meant to me, the scope and variety of it, would have a place to go and live. And of course that’s just one of many things that found a home in the book. There was also all I’d been feeling about race and class and sex and coming-of-age and marriages…It was the first thing I’d ever worked on where all the parts of what was meaningful to me could find a home.

TM: Speaking of marriages, I just read a little snippet of an interview with Adam Johnson. “When I’m writing, I become a terrible husband, I abandon my children.”

GRH: That’s what Jenny Offill calls “the Art Monster,” right?

TM: Exactly. I’m curious about how your writing works with parenting and how much your wife, who works full-time, has to pick up — how do the logistics work?

GRH: The short answer is that they don’t. The first draft of this I had nearly finished right before becoming a father. In fact, I was close enough that I probably could have finished. But I’d always known that the novel was going to end with the blackout of ’77 — that it was going to have to have this grand finale. And I thought, foolishly, “I’m going to wait and finish it after we have this baby, because that’s going to give me something I don’t already have emotionally.”

This idea that the book needs a different writer at the end — I adapted it from George Saunders, who claims it’s from Einstein, but apparently Einstein can’t be found saying it anywhere: that “no worthy problem is solved on the plane of its conception.”

And in fact my older son arrives and I discover that I am different, but not in the way I’d thought. I’m instantly so much tireder and dumber and more impatient and slower. I wrote the blackout that summer. I started waking up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, so I was writing it in the dark, in the summer, the stifling summer of 2010, and it took forever and it was a totally different kind of writing. The ratio of joy to torture was lower in a lot of places, and it took me a long time to get it right — or what I thought was right. Maybe it’s not right still.

By the time I was finishing the fourth draft and revising, our second son had come along and my wife was finishing her dissertation. So we were like a small publishing concern, only half our staff was under the age of three, and it was insane. There was no sleeping happening at all — though that did give a kind of visionary edge to the work. I was basically hallucinating from fatigue. And we were completely broke and not happy campers in a lot of ways. It was very, very hard. We kept getting priced out of where we were living and moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn. And people write these essays, “Why Do Writers Live in Brooklyn?” But even if I didn’t love New York, which I do, my wife was shackled to her job, which was in Manhattan, and my teaching income — I was teaching four classes a semester at that time — came from being in a place that has enough colleges to support that kind of adjunct-teaching load.

So not to oversell this, but in those years I felt like the schlepping mascot of the new gig economy. And now I continue to wake up really early — our basic agreement is that whatever happens before 8 a.m., I’m not responsible for. So if I wake up at 4:30 or 5 I can have three-plus hours before everyone’s awake. My brain’s very pliable at that hour, and it’s quiet. Then I take the kids and finish them on breakfast and get them ready to go and take them off to their allotted places, and am back at the desk by 9:30. But by then my brain feels like it’s been the victim of assault with a melon baller, and it can take me a dangerous 45 minutes to figure out where I was and what I was doing. And within that 45 minutes if I succumb to the temptation to glance at a newspaper, there goes the rest of the morning.

But then there’s this beast that emerges at the end of every draft. I call it the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, Jenny Offill calls it the Art Monster, Adam Johnson has his version…It’s a place of not shaving. A place of questionable hygiene, because you’re like, “I could shower or I could keep working on this for 15 minutes.” A place of not eating for long periods of time and then gorging to make up for it, a place of no sleeping. And that creature, the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, is scary for children. Like Der Struwwelpeter, who might come and eat you out of absent-mindedness. It’s just not a healthy thing to have in the house. It’s not a model of probity or balance. Yet somehow having kids makes the Crazy Old Man worse, because you have to allocate more of your meaningful work time to overheated obsession, since you’re not getting as much done in third gear. Or you’ve been in second gear when you really needed to be in third, so then you have to make up for it by shifting into fifth gear. And fifth gear is crazy for everyone, and the kids are like, “Dad, why are you driving so fast?”

So again, the short answer is, it really doesn’t work. But I look at someone like Michael Chabon or our friend Edan Lepucki. Or Dickens and Joyce — no, wait. They were terrible fathers, so they don’t count. But people have done it. It must be a kind of muddle-through thing.

TM: And now you’re done. And now it’s all starting, in a way.

GRH: [Laughs.] Yes, I’m having the uncomfortable feeling that some things are being typed as we speak. And I don’t know what it’s all going to be like. I have no scale for what it will be like, how people will react. Having written a 900-page novel is already unforgivable. But in my defense, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. There’s something in the book somewhere about choice and freedom not being the same thing. So: I didn’t feel like I was choosing this. Yet on the other hand, I’ve rarely felt so free.

is the editor of The Millions and the author of The Golden State, a novel forthcoming from FSG/MCD. She is on Twitter at @lydiakiesling. You can read more of her writing at www.lydiakiesling.com.

9 comments:

  1. Is this the overhyped book of the season? From the reviews I’ve been reading, it sure seems like it.

  2. I’m quickly tiring of hearing writers brag about being terrible parents. “I’m such an artiste, man, I sacrifice every other thing in my life for it. My poor children! Ha ha!” Every single parent of young children gets little sleep. There are millions of people working 2 or 3 shitty jobs and taking care of children. Just because you’re an “artist” doesn’t give you the excuse to be a shitty parent. It’s really not that hard; while the kids are awake, you’re a parent. When they go to sleep, you’re a writer.

    Yet another example of young writers believing they are Special. It really makes you skeptical of how a person with such a narrow perspective — there’s a whole world out there beyond the limits of Brooklyn, folks — can produce anything worthwhile.

  3. “while the kids are awake, you’re a parent. When they go to sleep, you’re a writer.”

    It doesn’t work that way, at all, Cheeeze. Writing is not just the act of typing; it goes on in your head most of the time you’re awake. It has nothing to do with writers being “special.” If anything, it’s damned inconvenient. And I’ve known mathematicians who are the same way — mentally consumed by proofs. This is exactly why I *don’t* have kids. I know perfectly well I couldn’t be both a writer and a parent, unless I could afford a full-time nanny. I accept that. Why are you so bitter, I wonder? You sound intensely jealous.

  4. “It doesn’t work that way, at all, Cheeeze.”

    Yes it does. Works for me. And yes, I think about writing all day too. You don’t have kids so I’m not sure how you can say it doesn’t work that way. How would you know?

    “This is exactly why I *don’t* have kids.”

    Good for you. This writer does have kids. So it’s fair to the children to get an absentee parent just because he’s a writer? This is what the writer said: it’s “scary to children”; it’s “not a healthy thing to have in the house”; it’s “not a model of probity or balance”. But it’s okay because….Art?

    “You sound intensely jealous.”

    What? Jealous of this writer for proudly being a bad parent?

  5. Ugh, the politically correct parenting squad.

    Good parents don’t exist in total service to their kids. Children are not delicate, waiting-to-be-damaged flowers. If you want to make children the absolute center of your universe go ahead – but be aware that a) children just turn out the way they turn out (this is why siblings are so different, despite being in identical environments) and b) over-parenting is a thing. All in all it sounds like he’s a great parent to me.
    Secondly @Cheeeze: Garth is obviously reading these comments (this is his co-website) and it’s a pretty charged thing to talk about someone’s kids when obviously you have minimal information about the situation.

  6. HEY GARTH! What’re your top 10 favorite punk bands? It’s rare to see two of my favorite things, literature and punk, get lumped together – I’m saying it’s a lot of fun for me to see Bad Brains references while I’m reading the Millions.

  7. Myg, you are right, I’m coming off far too judgmental here and for that I apologize. I know nothing of the particular situation and even if I did it’s not my place to interject…parenting is an intensely personal thing. But I am reacting to what Garth said, and if he doesn’t like my reaction, that’s fine but also part of being a public figure.

    My complaint is with the breed of writer who says things like “writing is so hard” or “living in Brooklyn is so expensive” or “because I’m a writer I’m naturally a bad parent/spouse/person” or “my book got bad reviews because the reviewer was too stupid to understand what I was doing” or “no one will publish my magnum opus because literature is dead”. Like these things are necessary to become the Delicate Flower That is the Modern Writer. And I’m sorry, but the writers that say this kind of shit are almost uniformly bad (haven’t read City on Fire yet) – such lack of self-awareness does not lend itself well to writing about others.

    But look, I didn’t say being a Writer is scary to one’s children or not a healthy thing to have in the house; Garth did. I happen to think that’s a fucked attitude. Maybe he is exaggerating, but if that’s the case, why? I know it’s not “cool” to have children these days, but I just think it’s an odd thing to boast about in interviews. Your mileage may vary, but if you grew up with a deadbeat or nonexistent dad you tend to be less flippant about parenting I guess.

    Sorry for coming off preachy.

    Oh, and “children just turn out the way they turn out”? Sorry but that’s simply ludicrous.

  8. “Maybe he is exaggerating”

    Yes, I’d say he is. And the reason is that he’s trying to deflect praise. He’s trying to be modest. Awkwardly or not, he is at 36 suddenly getting a ton of public attention, and is trying to deal with it the best way he can. He’s just trying to say “Look, I have warts too.” I don’t see any actual ‘bad parenting’ here. He was being glib; end of story.

    He also makes it clear why he lived in Brooklyn when he was struggling financially; his wife has a full-time job in Manhattan, and he was adjuncting, which you can only do in a place with a lot of colleges.

    Full disclosure: I was in Garth’s novel workshop at NYU. We weren’t really ‘friends’, as I’m considerably older, but we were friendly and collegial. I did the same adjuncting gigs after graduating, the same part-time writing lab jobs at places like Baruch and John Jay College, etc, tho I can only recall our paths crossing once, at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I think Garth’s success is GREAT for anyone who cares about writing and books; the fact that a literary novel can still provoke such interest (and, hopefully, sales) is good (and surprising) news.

    I also hope people will actually read the novel before having an opinion about it. I can recall a lot of people jumping right to the judgment with ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ or ‘Infinite Jest,’ for just two examples…

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