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.