Writing, Always Writing: On Charles Baxter, Craft, and Aging

There’s a maxim in the teaching of creative writing: like death, a story’s ending should be unexpected, yet inevitable. Across an impressive half-century career full of books, accolades, classroom hours, and awards (including a Guggenheim Fellowship, multiple Pushcart Prizes, and the Rea Award for the Short Story), Charles Baxter has mastered this maxim. He’s lectured about it and written about it in his seminal book on craft, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, and the many short stories of his six collections—from 1984’s Harmony of the World to 2015’s There’s Something I Want You to Do—put the maxim into clear practice.
Encountering the unexpected is one of the joys of reading Baxter’s stories. He’s the rare expert craftsman who’s also an alchemist. And he’s published as many novels as collections, including The Feast of Love, nominated for the National Book Award in 2000 and featuring a nocturnal wanderer named Charles Baxter.

The Sun Collective is Baxter’s sixth novel, and his first in 12 years. For perspective, his previous novel, The Soul Thief, was published back when George W. Bush was president. Summarizing the plot of a novel by the writer of The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot is at best reductive and at worst like bringing a knife to a gun fight. But here goes: retired engineer Harold Brettigan and his wife, Alma, have heavy hearts. Their children have disappeared—their daughter into the dull comforts of middle-class life, their son into the mean streets of Minneapolis. Once a promising actor, their son has been seen with the anti-consumerism radicals of the Sun Collective and may be living on the street, a dangerous proposition with the violent homeless-hating “Sandmen” on the prowl. Age has been rough on Brettigan. “In contrast to several of his contemporaries who had been hardened by life,” the novel explains, he “had been softened.”

From the bright study of his home in downtown Minneapolis, Baxter, 73, says over Skype that there’s a fair amount of himself in Brettigan. “I have those days, and I don’t think I’m unique in this, when I think, I don’t know if there’s a book I want to read today, I don’t know if there’s a movie I want to see, I don’t know if there’s any music I want to listen to.” As you get older, he says, the art you once loved “loses its shine.” After a pause of two breaths, he smiles and assures me, “It comes back.”
The Sun Collective begins with Brettigan on a train bound for the Utopia Mall, a totem to consumerism that produces “a disorienting spatio-temporal rupture” in visitors. Ironically, 20-something Christina Lubdell, also on the train, is tripping on a designer drug called blue telephone that does the same thing, making users feel that they are in “two places at once,” like Schrödinger’s cat. Her life is similarly quantum: by day, she works in a bank; after hours, she serves the Sun Collective in a “semi-ironic” capacity as its minister for propaganda, urging Minnesotans to “de-consume.”
Christina is a mess. “Blessed and afflicted with the scourge of empathy,” according to the novel, she’s also a magnet for unstable men. One, a self-proclaimed revolutionary named Ludlow, is hatching “little plans of revenge and ruination.” The other is the Brettigans’ missing son.

While Brettigan goes on nocturnal wanderings in search of him, Alma takes a different approach: she befriends the radicals. The inevitable collision of these disparate seekers creates fissures and bonds of unexpected depth and consequence.
Baxter says that the first ideas for the book began to appear five or six years ago. There were three, like a Venn diagram. The first: Reading about the flu pandemic of 1918, Baxter came across folklore cures of the era. One directed the ill to hold mirrors underwater and wash their reflected faces. He recalls that when he told Louise Erdrich about this over dinner, “she looked at me with that predatory look novelists have, and said, ‘If you don’t use that, I will.’ ”
The second: Baxter says that riding Minneapolis light rail to work, he was plagued by the moral dilemma of homelessness. “You ask yourself, What should I be doing? Is there anything I should be doing? That feeling was sort of a narrative generator.”
The third: Baxter heard that the number one al-Qaeda target in North America was Minnesota’s infamous shopping mecca, the Mall of America. “Instead of being horrified,” he says, “I thought it was funny.” Light pours through his windows as he laughs. The wall behind him is a bright puzzle of books. “That’s such a ridiculous place. Who would want to take it down?”
In some writers’ hands, the ridiculous is simply ridiculous. In Baxter’s hands, the ridiculous is strangely menacing and oddly disorienting. From the start, he knew he needed a different approach with this novel. “The sort of realism that I’ve practiced in the past isn’t adequate to the times we’re in,” he says. “I needed something more like Joseph Heller, or somebody whose work is running a fever.”
The result is a novel in which characters can be grounded in the quotidian and communicate with house pets; a novel in which a heartless American president can have a hair-trigger Twitter finger and stoke the flames of the economic divide with poetry. His name is Amos Alonzo Thorkelson, and a sample stanza from his poem, “No Free Lunch,” reads, “At the cash register she paid/ For junk food with a wad/ Of food stamps, and this made/ Me very very very sad.”
Baxter, who is among a handful of contemporary writers known almost as much for their teaching as for their literary output, has been a fixture at the esteemed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference since 1995. He’s turned many of his craft talks—which are more philosophical ruminations on lesser-explored aspects of writing fiction—into essays published in literary journals, as well as in Burning Down the House. His full-time academic career began in the 1970s at Wayne State in Detroit and included positions at Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA program, the University of Michigan’s MFA program, and, for the past 18 years, the University of Minnesota. His final course there, “Reading Like Writers,” was forced online by the coronavirus outbreak, and he had to make his retirement celebrations virtual.
It was a muted coda to a vital career, but Baxter says he didn’t miss being celebrated in “those ego fests.” He’ll remain involved with Bread Loaf and other literary conferences as long as he can, and a third volume on craft, tentatively titled Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Fiction, is due in 2022. “I think it’ll be my last book of essays,” he says, which will make a lot of writers very, very, very sad.
When asked what he’s most looking forward to about retirement, Baxter pauses for several seconds. “Like a lot of people, I’ve almost stopped looking forward,” he says. Still, he is eager for the time “when people can sit around and talk and not be scared to death that their conversation is going to lead to a lethal illness.” And as soon as it’s safe, he’ll volunteer again with food pantry or literacy efforts.
Until then, Baxter will be writing, always writing. “This is one of those things I probably shouldn’t say,” he offers. “But I started a new novel, a sort of thriller.” His mouth twists into a broad grin and he spreads his arms in front of the laptop. “I’ve always wanted to write a thriller, and who’s going to stop me?”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Charles Baxter

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Politics Is in Its DNA: On Jess Walter’s ‘The Cold Millions’

A cold city square fills with protesters. Armed police approach from all sides, penning them in, and a standoff ensues. Voices, signs, fists are raised. “We are here to stand against injustice,” shouts one man, only to be silenced by the swing of a stick. Within minutes, the peaceful show of solidarity has become a full-scale riot. Protestors run, fall, are trampled, shackled, and hauled away. A holding tank fills beyond capacity; gaunt faces are stained with blood. No one is read their rights. They fall ill, starve, some die. The youngest is only 16, and he’s not even a member of the union that staged the protest. His name is Rye Dolan. He was only there to support his older brother, Gig, as proud a union man as there ever was. Now both are guests of a corrupt, malevolent system. Their crime? Sedition: speaking out against the established order.
Though this scene could have been torn from today’s headlines, the protest occurred 111 years ago. It ignites the drama at the heart of The Cold Millions, Jess Walter’s first novel since his runaway 2012 bestseller Beautiful Ruins.
It’s mid-June, and, like everyone else, Walter is home, social distancing. We are speaking via Zoom. He’s backed by the harsh afternoon light of two windows on the top floor of a 1909 river rock carriage house at the back of his property in his hometown of Spokane, Wash.

Writing Beautiful Ruins, Walter explains, made him realize that the stories he likes to tell are themselves composed of stories and contain a multitude of characters and forms. He’s come to question the I narrator. “When I’m reading a first-person novel, sometimes I hear the voice of social media leaking in,” he says. “Somebody on their Facebook page or Twitter feed. I want a larger world than that.”
That larger world is on full display in Walter’s new novel. Even its title evokes a multitude, referring to a subset of desperate souls that Emma Lazarus, in her 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” called “huddled masses.” Though The Cold Millions spans 100 years, it takes place mostly in one: 1909, when the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, formally began their fight for free speech in Spokane.
At the novel’s core lie two brothers who couldn’t be more different: Gig is idealistic; Rye is uncertain. Gig provokes; Rye mediates. Gig is content in rags; Rye spends six months’ salary on a suit. Gig enjoys the affection of local vaudeville legend Ursula the Great; Rye could pass 100 women with nary a notice.
The story turns first when Rye reluctantly joins that protest only to find himself pulled into a battle he doesn’t care much about. Because of his age at the time of his arrest, he becomes a cause for labor. He’s given a lawyer and released, while Gig, incarcerated indefinitely, begins a hunger strike. The story turns again when Rye becomes a pawn in the fight, manipulated by both sides. In labor’s corner stands real-life progressive firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 19-year-old Irish beauty who uses Rye, and his sob story, to fire up her base. In industry’s corner stands fictional Lem Brand, who owns much of Spokane and thinks he can own Rye too.

Walter was born in Spokane in 1965. At the age of five, playing in an empty lot with a friend, he was blinded in his left eye. (He says he’s “possibly the greatest 54-year-old one-eyed point guard still playing.”) He says he grew up embracing adventure tales like Treasure Island and dreamed of “stowing away on a train, stowing away on a pirate ship.” But at the tender age of 19, he set sail on a different adventure: “I was a dad living in government housing trying to not drop out of college, looking into factory jobs,” he recalls. “If I hadn’t gotten subsidized housing, I don’t know that I would have finished college and been a writer. It doesn’t take much to derail you. I think we underestimate how many people are in that situation. My car breaks down, I’ve gotta call my brother, get a ride, go rent a car. Someone else’s car breaks down, their life falls apart.”

Walter was lucky. He got through college and found a journalism job at his hometown paper, the Spokesman-Review. His reporting on the Ruby Ridge standoff (a violent days-long confrontation between white separatists and the FBI) led to a Pulitzer nomination, and his first book, 1995’s Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family.
When asked if he sees his new novel as a battle cry, Walter says, “Being a former journalist, I discovered early on that fiction is a terrible way to break news. I think it’s also a hard way to practice politics. What fiction can do is more important than that: it’s such a shot of empathy. I don’t think of it as a cause novel.”
Maybe not, but The Cold Millions has politics in its DNA. It raises questions about power’s corrupting influence, about the sides people take and fortify with rhetoric, and about brotherhood, both genetic and thematic. The book is intimate enough to tell a moving story about Rye and Gig, and expansive enough to tell other stories too—about labor, class, inequality, privilege, corruption, and migration. But above all, The Cold Millions is about Spokane.
“Writers should have to write a book about the most interesting period of time in their city’s history,” Walter says. He raises a postcard he found when he began his research, showing downtown streets teeming with people as work horses wait with equine patience at the roadside. “This is a normal day in Spokane in 1910,” he notes. “Spokane was income inequality as a sort of social experiment. The wealth of these mining and timber families was unbelievable. The mayor couldn’t afford to live on the hill. It connects with where we are now. Anyone who’s been watching income inequality over the last decade knows that we are at the highest point since the Gilded Age.”

From the publication of Walter’s first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, in 2001 to that of Beautiful Ruins, no more than three years elapsed between books. When asked about the eight-year gap after Beautiful Ruins, Walter says that book “took a lot out of me, creatively.” Then his beard bends with a grin. “And I may have taken a slightly longer victory lap than usual.” He pilots his laptop around the room in his carriage house for a tour. “This is the house Beautiful Ruins renovated,” he says, pointing out his writing desk, his other desk, his Nerf basketball hoop (crucial to the creative process, he says), his “napping couch” and his “napping chair.”
Walter takes us downstairs and out into the overblown day. The back of his main house lies ahead, flanked by homes built, like most of Spokane, in 1909 or 1910, when union men like Rye and Gig were being imprisoned for modest demands that threatened the immodest profits of the industry titans up the hill. He enters his house at the back, crosses to the front, and points his camera out a window at the river valley, stretching as far as the eye can see.
“I wrote once about Spokane that it doesn’t matter where you live, you’re never more than two blocks from a bad neighborhood,” Walter says. “I kind of love that about my hometown. I still live in the flats, I still live next to the river I lived next to when I got a stick in my eye. I feel so connected to the person that I was, and maybe more comfortable than ever being that person and writing class stories that are about meth addicts stealing televisions, not about which private school you send your kid to.”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Jess Walter

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
Mike Harvkey is the author of ‘In the Course of Human Events’ and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book ‘All-American Murder.’