David Shields and I met almost 30 years ago, just after the publication of his breakthrough second novel, Dead Languages, at the sadly now defunct Bailey/Coy Bookstore in Seattle. We’ve been discussing and debating literature and media ever since. The occasion of this conversation is the release of his 21st book, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, which I was lucky enough to read as it evolved through several drafts. “I wasn’t going to read it because I’m so tired of anti-Trump shit,” says Bret Easton Ellis about the book, “but I love the book, agree with everything Shields nails about this moment. It’s the best summation of Trump I’ve come across. Such a relief to see someone get it. I was reading passages to my millennial Communist ‘Trump is going to kill us all’ bf, who didn’t say anything, just rolled away.” 1. Blowing Things Up Scott Karambis: Why did you decide to take on the Trump project? Do you recall the inspiration? David Shields: About a year and a half ago, Melanie Thernstrom, whose first book, The Dead Girl, I hugely admire, said to me, “I know what your next book should be.” She mentioned one of my earlier books, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, and thought I should keep a diary, as I did with Black Planet, but use Trump as the sort of magnetizing force and see what happens. For me, the whole point of writing is freedom from other people’s expectations, but Melanie’s suggestion struck me as difficult to dismiss. I could stop imposing my Trump insights on perfect strangers on the bus. SK: Trump has to be the most discussed human in the world. The coverage and commentary are literally nonstop. Were you concerned your riffs might not breakthrough the noise? DS: This question is kind of a nonstarter for me. Every topic has been covered from the beginning of time. In ancient Athens, everyone already thought pretty much every topic had already been thoroughly covered. Every writer imposes his or her consciousness on the time in which he or she lives. I’m not a political journalist with inside information (beyond about a dozen leaked transcripts). I’m not a trained psychotherapist. But I’m not aware of anyone having written about Trump in the way I have. SK: How would you describe that way? DS: I’ve always been terribly interested in the self-destructiveness of human beings. Trump’s self-hatred is a key source of his connection to other human beings. A third of the country, say, responds to the way in which he’s a “total loser” who’s housed in a “winner’s” palace. Also, as Richard Nash says, the business of literature is to blow shit up. The business of Trump is to blow shit up. To people who “run things”—the “media,” the government, the courts—he just keeps saying, “Fuck you.” For people who are really sad and lost and angry and dispossessed of the future, this is invaluable. Frank Bidart is very good on this: We all live symbolic lives—through TV, film, literature, love, politics. Trump’s base is a fan base; it’s fan fiction; through his bellicosity, they’re expressing by indirection their rage. 2. Collage Is Not a Refuge SK: But in terms of existing material, it must have looked insurmountable, and growing bigger every second. How did you approach the otherworldly abundance of Trumpiana? DS: The way the book works for me is that you see all these Trump alter egos, substitutes, avatars (see the Frank Bidart point above). Every single person in the book, including occasionally myself, is meant to be a Trump surrogate. If you read the book the way I want it to be read, every moment in the book is connected by a spider web and every part of the web vibrates. I’m a bit of a pack rat. I just gather stuff. When I was writing The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, which is being published in February, at one point I had literally 3,000 pages. The final version of that book is quite short, as is the Trump book. SK: That’s a lot of pages. Do you have a method for organizing it or is it intuitive? DS: A huge number of narratives have five gear shifts. For instance, dawn, morning, noon, dusk, and night. Every Greek tragedy. Every Shakespeare play. Very nearly every movie. I’m obsessed with collage form, but collage, as I like to say, isn’t a refuge for the compositionally disabled. I’m hyper-aware of each collage book of mine having distinct and graduated emotional and philosophical gear shifts. So the Trump book might, to the casual reader, feel loosely curated, but in fact it’s organized to within an inch of its life. 3. There Are Many Answers SK: For all your rejection of traditional narrative structure, you do make use of some of the most dominant cultural narratives of modernism. Family romance dynamics, for instance, play a significant role in many of your books. DS: The psychoanalytic thread is there, for sure, but it’s woven into an entire tapestry of many different threads, I hope. It’s not as if I say, “Here’s my explanation of Trump: X or Y or Z.” I’m just saying, “Here are many ways to understand his brokenness and how crucial that brokenness is to understanding his appeal.” For instance, I treat Trump’s insane relationship with the media as part of a family romance; he’s obviously trying and failing (needing to fail) to get the perfect love from mass media that he never got from his mother and father. SK: Media has been a central concern of yours from the beginning. I’m curious—what’s the source and enduring interest in media as a topic? DS: I grew up in California, where both of my parents were journalists. The movie business was never very far away. Also—and this is what my first nonfiction book, Remote, is about—in the early 1980s, something shifted, having to do with wall-to-wall media filling every crevice in American culture, and now of course this has become exponentially magnified with the invention of the web and social media. I just feel in my bones—and I know on my nerve endings—that the real story is no longer what happens; it’s how what happens gets mediated. Or at the very least it’s about the relationship between the former and the latter. SK: You write a lot. As you know there have been many writers, especially British and American writers, who have been criticized for overabundance. The implication is usually that facility reveals either a lack of seriousness or care with their craft. Whether you worry about that or not, what do you think motivates your rate of production? DS: Of all the things to worry about, that doesn’t make my top 1,000. At this point, I hope my collage scissors are pretty sharp. I know how they cut. (Joyce: “I’m happy to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.”) So, too, I’m hyper-aware of my own mortality, for some reason, and I just want to get a lot of work done while I’m still present and accounted for. If I were to explain my somewhat accelerated rate of production over the last several years, I do think it has to do in part with the controversy that my book Reality Hunger caused in 2010. There’s a way to see every book that I’ve written since then—and there have been a dozen or so—as practice to Reality Hunger’s theory.
Like most writers who meet young, Debra Jo Immergut and I have been talking about writing our whole lives. From Iowa City’s workshops and bars to NYC, where we struggled to raise kids and pay rent, to opposite sides of Massachusetts, where we live now with our respective families, we’ve been wondering aloud together what sustains our motivation to write when there is always so much else to do. The exciting occasion for this latest conversation is Immergut’s debut novel, The Captives, on June 5—26 years after selling a short-story collection not long after Iowa. The Captives is part of a two-book deal at Ecco/HarperCollins and will be published in a dozen countries over the next year. Publisher's Weekly praises this literary novel as "ingenious" and "nail-biting," and Booklist calls it a “stunning debut." 1. The Long Game The Millions: You published a collection of short fiction, Private Property, in 1992, just after Iowa, and now you have your debut novel coming out. That’s a pretty unusual publishing trajectory. How does it feel to debut again? What stopped, or stalled, in the past, and what inspired you to return to your work? Debra Jo Immergut: First, it’s clear to me now that I was woefully unprepared the first time around. In New York right out of college, I enrolled in a nighttime creative writing class at Columbia U, mostly because I hated being a bored entry-level office worker. In quick succession after that, I applied and was accepted to Iowa, then sold that story collection, basically with the only six or seven stories I’d ever written. That was freaky and wonderful. But I also found the publishing experience, being reviewed, giving readings, dealing with world-weary agents and editors, all that, vertigo-inducing. Publishing the tender stories of one’s youth, putting them out there for everyone to ogle, can make a girl feel a bit vulnerable! This came as a surprise to me. That’s how green I was. Then I wrote a novel that didn’t sell. At the same time, I became a parent and needed to earn money, so I decided to find myself a full-time job again. I kept writing—on my own, in writing groups—but had little urge to pursue publishing in any dedicated way until I was laid off in 2015. I knew I was ready and to my great joy, I discovered that all the miles and years behind me, and especially the defeats, seemed to give me new power and a more versatile set of tools. And I just felt tough enough to take whatever reaction the world was going to give me. I sent the manuscript that would become The Captives to an incredible literary agent, Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts, who plucked it out of her digital slush pile. Soumeya offered brilliant feedback and helped me nail the ending, and for that I will be eternally thankful. She quickly sold it in a kind of surreal, dream-come-true scenario, and here I am, debuting again, with much more equanimity and huge gratitude. So, yes, a long trajectory—but how it was meant to be, for me, apparently. Scott, how about you—do you feel like life has made you a better writer? TM: Probably, but not in a direct way. I’m not sure my craft skills are any better. I’m maybe more patient. Certainly more vulnerable, which just comes with the territory when you have three kids. But in a larger sense, it’s that vulnerability that re-engaged me in writing. One of the few business books worth reading is called Only the Paranoid Survive. It’s written by the late Andrew Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel. A Hungarian Jew born in 1936, Grove evaded capture from both Nazis and communists in his life, so he comes by his title honestly. As I went along in my own career, I started to understand what he meant from another perspective—how much of American business runs on fear. It seemed to me that the consequences of this fact—psychological, emotional, social—weren’t something that could be acknowledged. Fiction became the only way I could tell the truth about work. 2. The Iowa Effect TM: There’s a pretty familiar critique of writing programs—how they have a deadening or homogenizing effect on American writing—that keeps appearing in the press. You can count on one every couple years, like a spring snowstorm in Boston. Laura Miller wrote a broadside for Salon in 2011 that’s still circulating. And there was recently a reprise in The Atlantic. Of course, all institutions have biases, and the Workshop is no exception. But looking back, what’s your take on the Workshop’s overall impact on your development as a writer? DI: I don’t think I’d be a writer without Iowa, honestly. My main challenge over the years has been believing I was worthy. Being admitted to Iowa made that outlandish dream seem just a bit more within reach. And just occupying a spot at the same table as the writers who taught me—Elizabeth Tallent, T.C. Boyle, James Alan McPherson, Francine Prose, Tom Jenks, Allan Gurganus—that was so legitimizing. And of course, two years to just write. And the community of my peers...like you, and my husband John. Definitely the most important takeaway. TM: I totally agree. More than anything else, Iowa made it OK to own your ambition. It wasn’t embarrassing to leave some social event to write—which felt excruciatingly pretentious before to me. But how about what you learned? I remember Frank Conroy saying something like, “We can’t teach writing but we can put the writer in the path of inspiration.” Or maybe that was in the marketing material. See, the adman in me has blurred all the boundaries. What about you? Did you “learn” how to write there? DI: It’s murky, exactly what we got schooled in at Iowa. Life lessons, absolutely—I was 23, and it was a wild mess of possibility there. A lot of what I took away about writing, though, seems due to random luck and chemistry, looking back. I landed in a workshop with Madison Smartt Bell. His work then was all about youth and darkness and brutal honesty—and his model gave me courage to delve into the trickier parts of my own experience. I wasn’t really doing that when I arrived—but by the time I left, I was poking into all kinds of suburban American twistedness. Iowa and maybe all good MFA programs will help you wrap your mind around sentences, tone, and how to build those things into a compelling short story. They might help you find your voice—or, if you aren’t careful about what you’re soaking up, they might sway your voice toward whatever is the prevailing tone of the moment. Looking back at my short stories in Private Property, I think I did get a bit confused at times. But that’s what being a young writer is about, right? Absorbing influence, trying to locate your voice among many others. All these years later, all that has left just a faint residue. I spend exactly no time thinking about voice. Now I think more about the reader’s’ experience, and that’s where I’ve had to teach myself all sorts of foundational tactics that were not talked about at Iowa. How to construct the framework of a strong plot, how to slowly delineate a fully realized character over 300 pages or more, how to keep storylines moving and shifting in surprising and believable ways. In The Captives, I tried to illuminate both my characters by tracing the two opposing desires that drive them—the yearning for freedom versus the longing for redemption and moral clarity. Both Frank and Miranda are driven by these desires, but they’re in constant flux. That builds character—but also builds a lot of conflict and tension between them—and that gave me plenty of ideas for building my plot. And it feels true to life, I think...I mean, the underlying drivers of our decisions really do change enormously over time. TM: Iowa was essential for me too in the way that it demystified the actual career of writing. That being said, I’ve always found the term “workshop” to be a misleading metaphor for a writing program. I understand that it’s linked to the romance of the American craftsperson as a symbol of authenticity: simple, honest, true—especially in opposition to those decadent Europeans. But writing is not making a table. I found the workshop—back then at least—tended to privilege craft over plot. We rarely spoke about character development or scale with a few exceptions. One of my favorite moments in James Alan McPherson’s class was a critique of one of my all-dressed-up-with-no-place-to-go stories. I don’t remember his exact words, and I can’t possibly reproduce his style, but it was something like: “So, if you are writing a story about two ladies having tea and then you mention that a bear has entered the room and started smashing things up, but you keep writing about the two ladies, well...the reader is probably going to be distracted.” What you call the reader’s experience is the taking-care-of-business part of writing that isn’t about lyrical sentences. It’s about sustaining attention. DI: Definitely. Question for you, Scott: What do you think we gained and lost by not pursuing academic careers, as most of our classmates did? TM: Funny you mention it. I think it’s a really big question for any writer or aspiring artist. Especially for young people who have passion but lack context. It’s hard to even imagine the trade-offs of a so-called “writer’s life” beyond the cliches. I’m not sure if I lacked confidence in my work or was just too lazy and bourgie. Part of the confessional truth for me is that I really hate applying for grants and awards to support a family. I blame my father. Probably something I should explore in therapy. My work in advertising and strategy has, for all its flaws, given me access to all kinds of crazy people and experiences, and a relatively steady income when I’m not getting fired, which happens more than is ideal. But I do teach a grad class one night a week now in Boston. And I love it. Teaching is my last idealism. Maybe I had to leave the church to keep my religion. DI: I also feared I’d feel suffocated in the academic hothouse. But with that fork in the road far behind me now, I can honestly say 15 years in corporate magazine publishing—9 to 5 in a cubicle five days a week—was pretty stultifying, too! And my friends who teach have written and published much more, so I do feel like it was a real trade-off and I paid a price, turning away from that. When I was laid off from my job in 2015, I applied for a MacDowell Colony fellowship (yes, it is a form of writing grant—four weeks of freedom to create at no cost, gorgeous and delicious). At dinner the first night there, I talked to the other fellows and realized that my coming straight from a full-time office job made me a freak, an outlier. These people had all been living the artists’ life you describe—grants, residencies, teaching, and whatever else they needed to devote themselves to their art. Of course this made feel paralyzed by imposter syndrome for the entire first week. But then I just decided, fuck it, I’m going to embrace this difference, and think about what it took to find meaning and sometimes even joy in that corporate cubicle. I poured that energy into my work, and it comes out in my Captives characters and even more in my second novel, which is all about how one can be driven to desperate measures trying to balance creative work and paycheck work. Interestingly, I’m now doing some more stints teaching, and I’m totally enjoying it...so maybe we’re both veering back in that direction after opting out. 3. Genre Bending TM: The Captives is being called a literary thriller, a psychological thriller, a plot-driven literary novel...What does writing to so-called genre mean for a literary writer? Does the distinction still matter? How did it shift your approach? DI: It’s been fascinating to watch people variously classify The Captives, because it really does seem to straddle the boundaries. But for me, there is only careful writing and crap writing—and maybe I’d say there is another level that is reserved for astounding writing. Yes, we can call books in which crimes are committed crime novels—as mine is called, sometimes. Books that have thrilling plots can be called thrillers, as mine is called sometimes. I’m OK with that. I try to be a careful writer and create work that is as original and textured as my addled brain will allow. I think a lot of people who are currently tagged as genre authors do that. Look at John le Carré’s characters…those are complicated people. And “literary writers” can be pretty careless. The term “literary” can be used to cover up a multitude of sins against readers. We should cheer for writers who pay painstaking attention to language and character, who are ambitious, challenging, and pushing the form forward. I just don’t know if we should label them. I enjoy constructing a story with pace and twists, but that’s not what drives me. The big unanswered questions are really what make me sit in the chair. Does that make me a literary writer or a genre writer? TM: This gets us to maybe the only frame on this question that really matters, which is marketing. I’ve been doing this strategy thing for 20 years now, so I can say with some confidence that classifications matter. There is a famous experiment that the design firm Ideo performed in grocery stores. They designed a shopping cart that they partitioned into separate sections for vegetables, fruits, meats, etc. They found that when they designated bigger areas for vegetables, people bought more vegetables. A lot more. Genre is, obviously, a powerful framing device. DI: If you play with crossing or mixing genres, you have to bet on confounding some readers’ expectations. But ideally, I win them over with my story’s charms. That’s the goal. TM: Yes. Beyond the market, the dream is that people read our stories and books on their own terms. And if that’s the goal, if we want to blow people’s minds (in the best way) to create powerful experiences that linger, then we have to risk striking out into new territory, including mixing genres. DI: Definitely. However my work gets tagged, I’m looking for that brain-gut connection—I want to provoke readers intellectually and viscerally. Revving the pulse, turning a twist in the stomach or the heart, maybe making a bit of sweat pop up. To cause a deep stirring in people one has never even laid eyes on…to me, that’s a writer’s magical power.