In Liar, you revisit your life in the light of your memories. The first one of the book concerns your murdered little girl friend, when you were 11. Why did you choose that specific memory to begin your autobiography? Did you choose to “work backwards from the worst moment of your life”, as suggested by the title of one of your previous books?
Wow…thanks for referencing that story. I hadn’t thought about it, but maybe there was a little of that…though I guess it should sort of be working forwards from the worst moment in this one. But, I think the reason I opened there was not exactly because it was the worst moment (though it was surely up there), but the first moment of feeling that the world was a totally random and uncontrollable place. Prior to that, I knew I was helpless to change certain major things. After that, it seemed to me that everyone was helpless at once. I don’t know if that makes sense. But I guess it was when I realized there wasn’t really a safe space where adults (or anyone) could protect you. And they couldn’t fix it afterwards, either. So…it made a big impression when I was that young.
How did you select the memories you wrote about in Liar? Some are very significant; others are more trivial. Some are vivid in your mind; others have been recalled to you by some people. How to filter the memories of your whole life?
That was one of the hardest parts. How to balance the really dark parts with some humor (however dark)…I think the biggest thing was that it was a book that could, in a way, never end. That memories kept coming to me…and some of them were great on their own, but would have made the book too long. Some were fine, but were redundant to better memories/scenes that were already there. I tried to give a sense of « whole-ness » or complete-ness without going on forever. It was a tough call with cutting some of the things I liked. Or leaving out a lot (especially funnier, but inconsequential stuff). I tried to let the book tell me where the various paths had been exhausted.
In Liar, as in The Cost of Living, the facts are not exposed in chronological order. Why have you decided this cutting up of your life, through round trips?
You know, I’m working on a novel now, and I told myself before I started « I’m going to tell this one straight and linear…beginning/middle/end. » I had it in my head that I’d been using non-chronological narrative for a while and maybe it was a crutch. But then I realized the only way to tell the new novel is non-chronological. I also remembered that my first two novels are chronological, so I do know how to do it and I should just let the novel dictate what’s right for it.
But the main reason i did it in Liar was that I wanted to have the book mimic the way memories occur to us. And they don’t occur to us chronologically. One thing suggests another. One thing reminds us of another. It’s like Vonnegut’s notion in Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim has become « unstuck in time. » I tend to think we all are unstuck in time in our heads. We bounce from moment to moment in thought/reflection.
All that on top of the fact that I’m a digressive storyteller. I’m no longer that interested in creating linear narratives. But, who knows? Maybe I’ll do it next time.
You necessarily must have remembered more moments of your life after the redaction of Liar. When did you know that your book was finished, that you had to stop the writing? Was it because it had an internal coherence?
I remember SO much more. But then came the question of if I had already covered that topic/emotional thread enough in the book already. The harder thing is I’ve thought of a lot of things that should have been in there after the book was published. If anyone cared, I might do a different edition of it…with the stuff I wish I’d put in. Like a director’s cut. But those usually aren’t very good. Plus, who would care? Plus, I have new stuff to do. I don’t know if I answered your question. Hope so.
In most of your novels/short stories, where fictional characters are portrayed, you use first person, whereas in Liar, which is your autobiography, you use second person, in the present tense. It is extraordinarily effective. How did you come to this decision?
First, thanks so much for saying it was effective. That means a lot. Second, I kind of stumbled into it. I’ve always liked second person. Though I think it often works better in stories than in book-length narratives (so that was a challenge). But/and, I had started the memoir in first person, and it simply wasn’t working. Then, for no real reason I could think of, I started doing these autobiographical scotches in second person. I liked it. I didn’t think I had a book. But they came easier. I think using « you » made the text both more intimate (I hope) for the reader, but also gave me more of a distance while I wrote it. When it was a hard or shameful moment (which there are plenty of), it was easier to write « you did this » rather than « I did this. » Plus, I think at its best, it makes the reader more complicit…and either closer/more empathetic or more disturbed (which can be a form of empathy, too) by the intimacy. And I like that. Same with present tense. Seemed more immediate to me. And helped with the pace.
Your works of fiction focus on young men who look so much like you. They have bipolar disorder, manic episodes, and suicidal tendencies. They struggle with addictions, alcoholism. They have lot of pathetic jobs, deals… Was it the same to write about them and about yourself?
Writing about me (or the persona of « me ») in Liar was a little different. I felt like I get to be more playful in fiction. While characters/protagonists share a lot of qualities with me, I still get to make a lot up and put them in situations I couldn’t allow myself in Liar, where I was trying to tell a true story. Which is somewhat impossible, given the nature of memory and subjectivity. But one of the things I like about writing is that language is already a flawed tool for what we’re trying to do. So, working with the limitations appeals to me in some way. I think it was Pinter who say we never write the thing itself, we write « around the unspeakable. »
All of my writing (except some of my stories) has been very autobiographical and first person. Which is why I decided my new novel I’m working on would have no one who’s based on me. And it would be in multiple third person, rather than first. I think it’s important for any writer to try to do something new with every project. Or at least it’s important for me. I should only speak for me.
« They say you should write a memoir as if everyone you know is dead. A gruesome, but useful thought. But wise advice I think. »
When someone writes about his own life, he also writes about the life of the others, doesn’t he? Did you fear hurting people you love?
Absolutely. There was a deep fear there. About a week before the book came out in America, I emailed my editor in a panic about the book, saying I wish we could pull it, and not put it out. He treated me like the idiot I was and said of course not. But, yes. I panicked and worried about people’s feelings. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to write it, I would have to be faithful to the book. They say you should write a memoir as if everyone you know is dead. A gruesome, but useful thought. But wise advice I think.
Are there memories you have decided not to reveal? And if so, why?
Only one. It just disturbed me too much. Which means I failed, and should have included that. Well, maybe not. I still am not sure. It wasn’t something enormous. Just a moment that resonated with me. So, I guess I don’t really know the answer.
Do you consider that a writer must have lived in order to have something to say? Do you think that a writer only writes well about things he knows well? Are the stories rooted in imagination worthless?
The short answer: Yes. No. No.
The slightly longer one…I think every writer needs life to have kicked them in the ass and broken their heart a few times to know how to write something with urgency and depth and an ego-less empathy. But experience isn’t really directly translated. Lorrie Moore (I think it was her) said that if you were cooking, experience is the ingredient…the food, the spices…but it wasn’t the meal. You need imagination to create the meal. So, maybe that answers your third question, as well.
As for the second question: I think a writer needs to write about things they are obsessed with. Which can be something they think they know. Or something they made up that is emotional true for them. Was it Einstein who said imagination was more important than experience? I always loved that notion. He may be right.They are both important. I think it’s a balance of both.
In a way, as you write about yourself and all your experiences, don’t you “turn your life into a work of art”?
I’m not sure. I think i write about what I don’t know about myself. Not what I do know. So, maybe I turn my questions about life into art…or at least into books.
To write a so sincere testimony and call it Liar is a real paradox. Did you want to give the reader the option to believe or not in your side of the story?
I think I called myself out on all the actual lies in the book. So, while it’s up to the reader to believe the scene/moments/memories, I think everything in there happened the way I remember it. But that doesn’t make it a fact. Nabokov said « memory is a revision. » I didn’t try to lie to the reader. But nothing is exactly as it truly happened by the time it becomes a narrative in my head, either.
You write: “You lie because you are terrified of being alone. That someone learns the truth. If no one knows who you really are, then who you really are can never be rejected.” In fact, reading your memoir, it is striking to see how many faithful friends, and especially girls, you have. Is it so difficult for you to believe that you are worthy of love, and that you don’t need to lie to be loved?
It was difficult for a great deal of my life. I was, as you mention, surrounded by people who thought I mattered when I didn’t agree. I don’t know. Loving, even liking, yourself is a hard notion for me sometimes, still.
Your work is full of freaks, Eck, the half-boy, Lobster boy… Do you feel yourself different from the ordinary people?
In general, I think everyone must be different and even, under a microscope, not really that ordinary. At least I hope so.
But, to the question, I think I’m different, yes. But not better. That’s a key distinction for me. For years, I thought I was worse. Still do, at times. I think more than feeling different, I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit in. Like « normal » society was going about its days and I wasn’t invited. Which, eventually, was fine, I suppose.
But I have always been drawn to difference (like the half boy, the Lobster Boy, and such)…and also how people (including me) treat such difference. I think there is respectful interest (which I hope I have), and then exploitative distance, where people tend to see the other, in this case, as a zoo animal.
Of course, taken to its radical (and seemingly inevitable) extreme, people’s need to treat people as « the other » is why we see cops gunning down innocent black men in the states. It’s why, unbelievably, the Arian nation is loud and proud here. It’s why a xenophobic, hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic (and so much more) buffoon got voted in on a ticket of regressive Nationalism. People are so afraid of and hateful to people who are (or even look) different. It’s ultimately why we drop bombs and torture.
Sorry. That last bit went off tangent from the question. But any chance I get to bash Trump is hard to avoid.
I see you as a Bukowski who would have a strong sense of guilt, a great care about what people think. Do you like his work and do you feel you have something in common?
Bukowski was a very large influence on me when I was just starting out. I haven’t read much of him in a while, but he was a revelation to me that you could write about disenfranchised people in a clear, empathetic way. That everyone mattered, not just the subjects of most big fiction. That you didn’t need to dress up prose. That you could make yourself the ugliest part of the story. He was a big early influence, yes, I still think Ham on Rye is one of the most underrated great books out there.
You talk about a lot of economical problems: unemployment, pathetic jobs, student debts, difficulties to pay healthcare costs, lack of insurances… Are those problems the dark side of the American /Californian dream?
Well…I think there are people with much much bigger economic problems than we have here (although we have an astounding number of homeless people and, this is horrifying, starving children…and other terrible things going on). Many have it bad/awful here. But the world has so much poverty in numbers and ways we can’t comprehend here.
And jobs…I could be wrong, but while pathetic jobs suck royally, I think other cultures have them. Personally, I have always resented shitty jobs. Because I don’t have that much respect for money…so I resent that the electric company and my landlord and others DO respect money and want me to come up with it.
The other stuff–the student debt is ridiculous. We used to have amazing free public schools–all the way through college. Within my lifetime…this isn’t some ancient thing. But everything’s for profit now. The lack of healthcare for the poor and lower middle class and, in some cases, the elderly…that’s one of the worst, ugliest marks on this country. There’s no excuse…except that we have politicians (and people) who would rather cut taxes on/for billion dollar corporations than save people’s lives. All the people I mentioned and more…people with pre-existing conditions…they’re all expendable because they cost money. But so does the military and they get more money every budget. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that we are, at least in this moment, a cruel nation. And if they don’t change, I think the American dream is now a myth (though it always has been in some ways…just not this bad). We no longer welcome immigrants…we have a caste system…a few people make it out and our leaders and media tend to champion the exceptions as if they’re the norms…but for the most part, people live and die in the income bracket they were born into.
I think Hunter S. Thompson said something like…historians–when they look back on the united states–will call us the greatest failure of a country with some of the greatest promise. I hope not. Maybe there’s time to turn that around. Not this week, though.
A lot of your characters are atheists, and I guess you are too. Is it easy to be an atheist in the USA nowadays?
I think a murderer could be elected to congress before an Atheist in the US. That’s an exaggeration (maybe), but not by much.
That said, it’s not hard to be an atheist in the US. Unless you were some public figure…then you would be kicked to the curb for it. But for relatively obscure writers, it’s not too hard. The hardest part is seeing what hatful and vile behavior is done by alleged good religious people. But that’s not as hard as it is annoying as all hell. That said, there are religious people who I don’t agree with their ultimate faith, but I respect what they do with it. Some feed and clothe the homeless…some help people around the world. You know…I have trouble finding fault with those actions.
And there are probably a ton of asshole atheists. I believe what I believe. I try to respect others beliefs, so long as they don’t hide under the guise of religion to spread hate and violence. Which is happening a lot right now in the states…and other places. Dangerous Nationalism has made a frightening comeback in the world.
But…it’s not that hard (Atheism), I don’t think. Though I stand by the murderer/atheist thing about congress. And it’s hard to see science so devalued in the US…where fossil fuel guzzling climate change deniers are pretty much destroying the earth as fast as they can. Science is a dirty word in the US. And many people use faith to discredit science. Which is ridiculous. And sad. A staggering amount of people are on the wrong side of history at the moment.
When you were very young, in 1972, you were obsessed by the extinction of animals, and terrified of being the last of your species. As you said, “you were obsessed not by death, but by the fear of being alone”. I was astonished by your maturity as a young boy. Do you think that your remarkable lucidity can be an explanation of your future addictions, your desire to be stoned, to escape this harsh reality?
That was probably a big part. That and, later (though I was already an addict), self-medicating for my mental illness. But being high/loaded/drunk was definitely an attempt to escape my head. Being in my head is not always a very good place for me to be. I was running from that.
What would be your definition of happiness?
Wow. Tough one. I guess the moments in life where you’re maybe not even conscious in the moment, but when you are totally in the moment…which can happen when I’m exposed to something of remarkable beauty in the world (which could be something as big as an ocean or a brief witnessed kindness of a stranger to someone else)…or sex…or writing…I think happiness happens when I’m doing and not thinking. And only on reflection (even if it’s a very quick reflection) do I realize that I was surrounded by happiness for a moment. Though sometimes it can happen and you can know it in the moment. I guess it is being totally in moments for me, though. Where I’m not troubled by the past or worried about the future.
Despair, alcoholism, addictions, physical pain, mental diseases, suicide, and fear of abandonment… how do you explain the pleasure the reader feels reading your books? I cried when I read the words: “listening to the noise the world will make without you”, do you think I am masochistic?
Well, I hope the reader gets some pleasure out of them. But, even more, I hope they can empathize. The books I love the most have made me feel less alone in the world. That’s what I hope my books can do for some people. I can’t control it. But it’s what I hope.
My friend Jerry Stahl, while interviewing me, once brought up the notion that dealing with the pain we can control might be a way of dealing with the pain we can’t control.
So, yes. Maybe you are kind of masochistic-ha. Maybe we all are when we’re reading the kind of books I’m talking about. Suffering binds us, I think.
One of your girl friends once said to you, talking about REM, that “it’s thanks to the bad parts that you can appreciate how the good ones are great”. Is it why you like to hurt yourself, physically and mentally? To appreciate more the end of the pain?
I don’t think so. Not sure those two notions are related. I think I read her statement as more about the pain of the world. Not what is self inflicted…but, rater, what’s impossible to avoid in this life. Life’s an adult dose. We need those moments of greatness.
Your books can be also so funny, especially the dialogues. They seem so realistic. Do they come from your good power of observation?
I love listening to the way people talk to each other. I grew up in a predominately Italian neighborhood and section of town. Several of the guys were made men and/or connected to the mob in some way. And while a lot of what they did was disgusting, a lot of it was pretty funny…and listening to them talk about it was early training for me in paying attention to the way people talked. Those guys were, often, hilarious. And the names. Lou the Torch (arsonist), Mondo and Fausto (corrupt land guys who owned the town zoning board…plus they owned the major of the closest city)…their brother who I worked for, Clean Tommy…named that because he wasn’t mobbed up and lived an honest life…hence « Clean » Tommy.
And after that, I just became kind of addicted to listening to weak patterns and rhythms. I think that may be where being a musician (or starting to be at that point) really impacts my writing. Dialog is music to me.
Dialog when it’s written in fiction/prose isn’t REALLY real dialog, though. Even « realism » doesn’t contain realistic dialog. It’s more of a distilled/clipped version. Boiled down to the essential.
As for why my stuff is funny (and thank you so much for saying so)? I value comedy and laughter like few other things in life. I don’t think I have a close friend who isn’t a very funny person. When I was a starting writer, I tended to write bad Hemingway and Carver ripoffs. And then I came to a point where I realized I had no originality to my work. And I decided to make a list of things and people who fascinated me. And humor was on the top of the list. Plus, I just love funny dialog. I don’t think it gets enough respect, at least here. But that’s another story.
You teach creative writing at Palm Desert University, California. In France, people are quite skeptical about this kind of program; they fear a standardization of thoughts and writing styles. Can you explain us the content of your teaching?
I’ve been teaching writing for twenty years, and I have heard (in the states) this notion of a standardization of thoughts and writing styles. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen it. I see a commonality among books published by the major/trade presses here. But I think that’s the result of the publishers being gutless and playing it safe (like Hollywood) and not taking chances on difference and attempts to do something new. But I don’t see writing programs being the source or the blame of that. I see tremendously diverse styles of writing in the classes I’ve taught. I’ve had a lot of students go on to publish…even a few bestsellers (a foreign world to me-ha!)…and they haven’t been anything like each other.
I don’t see why writing can’t be taught. We teach other arts. Painting. Sculpture. Ballet. Is everyone going to be a fantastic writer? No. Some will…but it’s my hope they’ll all be better when they leave than when they came. And better readers, I hope, as well. Readers who help keep literature alive.
That said, I tend to teach writing as both an art and a craft. I think a lot of places teach craft. And that’s good. But unless you challenge people to make art–to be original, to push at the boundaries of what has come before–you’re not really doing a lot. I also teach a lot more theory than some people tend to. I think artists should be aware of modes of criticism. But, maybe I’m weird that way. I read architectural theory to inform my writing. I read art theory. History. I study electronics…it all comes together in some way in the craft. You have to do more than just write.
But, as far as teaching goes…we don’t say that, say, tennis can’t be taught. Everyone…Laver, Graf, Serena…they all took lessons. They were taught. It isn’t just talent that makes a Michael Jordan. There HAS to be a lot of talent, for sure. It surely isn’t MOSTLY coaching/teaching. As a teacher, when I have a tremendously talented student, I think my job is to help them avoid the mistakes I and people I know have made early in their careers. And then get out of the way. Sometimes you can’t take much credit for the great ones. It feels like they were going to make it, anyway. You just show them what potholes to avoid. In both craft and career.
Music plays an important role in your life. You play guitar, sing and write lyrics in The Urinals. Your books are full of musical references: Thunders, Centro-Matic, Ike Reilly, Warren Zenon, Stones, Velvet, Violent femme, Jason and the Scorchers, Tex and the Horseheads, Richard Hell, Dylan… The Cost of Living tells the story of Bud Barrett, a guitarist… You said that music helps you to feel things. Do you think that there is a relation between your love of music and your writing style?
I think there is. More that music influences my writing than the other way around.
My writing borrows a lot from music. I want the prose to sing, if it can. Pace. Rhythm. Dynamics. I’ve said in the past all writing lacks is melody, but I think I was wrong. A beautiful sentence like Fitzgerald’s lines when Nick imagines Gatsby’s death…I’m paraphrasing, but it’s close:… »he must have realized what a grotesque thing a rose was and how raw the sunlight is upon scarcely created grass »…if that doesn’t carry a melody, it carries something very close.
Four of your books have been translated into French. Have you been translated into other languages and do you know why French people love you?
I’ve only been translated into French. I’m not certain French people do love me, though thank you for saying so. I take the fact that I’m not translated elsewhere as a sign that the rest of the world must hate me. So, where would I be without France (which I loved even before having the pleasure of being published there)?
Do you think that we will have the pleasure to read your new novel in France soon?
I hope so. Though I’m not sure exactly how soon. This has been the hardest one I’ve ever written…I’m trying to do a lot of things I’ve never done before…and it’s taking longer than any of the others have. But once I get it good enough, I’m hoping it will be released. But there may be another year of writing on this one. Hopefully less.
interview partly published in New Noise n°43 – March-April 2018