Photos : Ferdinand Wozniak
Your work, especially when it is related to your cycle featuring your alter ego Max Zajack (Hating Olivia, Lounge Lizard, God Bless America, Dirty Work), is very often associated by critics to dirty realism. This literary current, born in the 80s, embodied by writers like Bukowski, Carver or John Fante, pushes American dispossessed and common people to the fore and is identifiable from its minimalist style and use of simple words. Do you consider your work can be filed under that literary movement, or any other?
In the case of the Zajack novels, probably. But in my estimation labels are generally misleading because the lines between where one category begins and another ends are greatly blurred. If the Zajack novels are dirty realism, my other novels and stories – the majority of my work — would splay across such genres as literary, character-driven, psychological fiction, suspense, even horror at times. I don’t know. I suppose it’s for other people to determine.
What strikes reading your novels is their apparent simplicity. They sound so real, as if they wouldn’t have needed any effort to be written. I know it is extremely hard to be so true, above all as regards the dialogues. How do you work? Do you weigh each word? Do you make a lot of corrections?
Your observation is very interesting. Over the years I’ve been in the process of stripping the prose down into its most rudimentary form, if at all possible. But I started out as a much different writer. The novels and stories – as well as everything else — go through endless revision. I’m never finished tweaking my work, even, in many cases, after it’s published. So the simplicity is in some ways an illusion: after ten or twelve or fourteen revisions, the work is in what I would call in a more slick state. And yes, every single word is weighed, then weighed again — and again. Many times they are entirely eradicated. As a writer you learn many tricks over time to achieve this so-called simplicity and readability. Yet every piece presents a set of new challenges. It’s a never-ending process, really. And this keeps the act of writing alive.
Do you think that the writers who gave you the desire to be a writer yourself (Henry Miller, Georges Simenon, Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoievski…) have an influence on your work?
No question. I take something from every writer I fall in love with, from Patricia Highsmith to Pascal Garnier. It might be philosophically, perhaps stylistically, maybe something else. You know what they say: good writers borrow, great writers steal. Whether it’s transparent or not, I try to be a very good and discreet thief.
Your Max Zajack novels are confessional, autobiographic novels. In France, we have a literary movement called autofiction, but for me these authors only gaze at their own navel. How do you manage to touch people with your own personal experiences? How do you transform your life into a work of art?
That is a very good question, and one I don’t know that I have an adequate answer for. I suppose I’ve been lucky that my readers find some identification with whatever dilemmas my characters, including Max Zajack, find themselves confronted with. And maybe it’s because I have no problem laughing at myself.
Does one have to like to talk about oneself to be a writer? Do your books say a lot about you, even when they are not autobiographical?
Unfortunately I love to talk, and talk about myself, and inevitably many of my life’s greatest concerns — love, death, passion, murder, art – make their way into my work. And yes, my books probably say a lot about what goes on inside me, including all of my doubts and contradictions and fears. But I never, ever talk about what I’m working on until I’m finished. On the few occasions when I’ve done that, whatever I thought I was working on didn’t get written. It got talked away and at the same time betrayed grave doubts about what I thought I was going to do. For me there has to be a compression of psychic energy that makes its way onto the page and it can’t be emitted prematurely at the risk of squandering it altogether.
Do your use of the pronoun « I » obliges you to say the truth?
Exactly the opposite! I think it creates the illusion of truth. I like to say that as soon as pen collides with paper, the truth is abandoned, especially when writing in the first person. You’re dealing with poses, illusions, deceptions. There are so many existential realities brought to bear upon even a moment of “the truth” – whatever that is — that it’s impossible to write it. And for the purposes of literary value, it’s not altogether feasible. Certain people have tried. Proust leaps to mind. Celine. Henry Miller. Many, many others, of course. But perhaps “the truth” is best approached from another angle.
Do you think that anyone can be an artist?
Depending on your definition of artist, yes. It’s a very loose term nowadays, isn’t it? I have my own definition of the term, but it seems to clash with the world’s current view. I’m old-fashioned in that sense.
Bukowski had alcohol. Rob Roberge had dope. You had Olivia, among others. Would you say that one needs to have experienced life to be a writer?
Yes, but I’m not sure that the addictions you mention qualify as life. Part of it, sure, but I tend to think of them, including my own, as clichés. By now they are really tiresome and dull, I think. It was much more interesting when certain issues were hidden or not talked about in literature and the energy from it erupted elsewhere. Because those afflictions in themselves aren’t life. Life is a cosmic octopus spreading in all directions. Real life is walking the dog, and going to the doctor, and reporting to the job every day. And every thought and action that goes hand in hand with those so-called mundane activities. Being a writer is a combination of a multitude of things: compulsions, insecurities, perception, ability, as well as a whole universe of other things related to life. And we are all living, every single minute, to at least some degree. I think what you’re talking about is something – I hate to say something like “wisdom” – born of experience. And the older one grows, the more of it one accumulates. That’s life. I don’t think you can have much of it at the age of eighteen or twenty.
Max has always known that he would be a writer. Has it always been obvious as far as you are concerned? Was it impossible for you not to write?
Well, I was very young when I naively went after it. At that point it was a fantasy more than anything else. I didn’t know what to do and I had no clue what I was doing. On one level I still don’t. But the compulsion took hold quickly and never left. When you have the compulsion you might be able to turn it into something of value. But not always. As Patricia Highsmith once said, “Art is an addiction. That’s why there are so many bad artists.” So there’s probably something more than persistence involved. And you can never underestimate the power of luck – and the right connections.
Have you ever asked yourself why you write?
Yes, every single day. I don’t know the answer, and now it’s too late to care.
Your novels The Suicide and Un Faux Pas present another form of fiction. They are dark novels. Did you work differently to build them? Did you have a more precise plan?
For me they just feel like another part of the same process. But those novels are constructed quite differently, actually, since they are a little more dependent on a tight plot. That said, many unexpected things happen when writing a novel or story. You can’t always predict where things will go. I never do, that’s for sure.
In all your novels, the relationships between men and women are violent, troubled, and passionate. Except sex, they don’t share a lot, no tenderness, no complicity. Do you think, like Max, that a man can’t understand a woman?
Is it really that bad? I hope not. Anyway, that’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. I don’t know that any of us can be understood. Understanding another person, man or woman, is a huge ocean to cross. I don’t know that it can be done.
Or don’t you think it is very hard to understand Max, or you, especially for a woman?
I suppose you would have to ask them.
Do you reckon happiness is not worth being written?
I suppose it would be if it were interesting enough. But perhaps the operative word should be contentment. Because we’re all discontent to some degree, aren’t we? Restlessness keeps everything in creation in motion, even if it’s only on the inside. That’s more interesting than happiness, I think.
I’ve read that you are not interested in politics. Don’t you think that any work of art is political?
I was told in France recently that my work is political despite the fact that I’m indifferent to the subject. That may be true. I’m highly aware of what goes on in the world, but not interested in the game of politics – that’s probably a more accurate way of answering the question. And I suppose you can always ascribe some political stance to any piece of art if you want to. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
You have written a lot of short stories. You even said that it is what you liked most. What is a good short story for you?
Impossible to answer, but you know it when you read it. There are so many great ones, and of so many various species, that it’s hard to pick even a few. But some that leap to mind are “Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne Du Maurier. And “Death In Midsummer” by Yukio Mishima. “Death In Venice,” Thomas Mann. Almost everything that Raymond Carver wrote. The majority of Highsmith’s stories. Everything by Paul Bowles. Chekov, Tolstoy, Isaac Singer. And so many, many more. I seem to be less interested in current stories, I must admit — anyway, the ones I’ve read recently.
What is the difference between writing a novel and a short story?
The process is quite different, obviously. I prefer to write the first draft of a story quickly, in one day if possible. It has to do with energy, thrust, momentum, capturing lightning. Of course I’ll work on it after that point for months, even years. With the novel you’re faced with filling a much larger canvas, though I also like to get that first draft down as quickly as possible as well. The short story has to do with perfection, in the end, the novel with complexity. That’s a very simplistic way of describing the difference.
And, as you are a poet, a painter and a musician too, what’s the difference between writing fiction, songs, poetry, and painting?
When painting, I find an entire part of my brain shuts off. It’s a pleasurable feeling, a form of Zen meditation. Of course what disrupts it is that I become frustrated because I can’t execute what I set out to do on account of my shortcomings! For me, poetry embodies some sort of moment of enlightenment, a philosophical realization that often materializes first thing in the morning upon opening my eyes. Music originates from yet somewhere else. It’s hard to describe. It’s often pure feeling, especially when composing instrumental music. When lyrics are involved, it’s something else, because that involves an altogether different facility, and getting them to fit properly with a melody and chord sequence require a different skill again. I could go into greater detail on all of them, but we’d be here forever.
You have had a lot of jobs during your lifetime : political risk analyst, dating advice ghostwriter, freight loader, teacher, landscaper’s assistant, deliveryman, truck driver, clothes salesman, astrologer, short order cook, fast food worker, bank clerk, proofreader, bar musician, government pensions clerk, brewery worker, reporter, telephone solicitor, stock clerk, and chauffeur. Can you make a living as a writer now?
Well, the answer is what kind of living we’re talking about. You know, the publishing world is about money. Nothing but money. For the publishers and agents it’s a business, nothing more. They need to pay rent and make a profit. So as a writer if you sell in sufficient quantities, you’ll be in the business with them. If not, you’re out of the game. This is a hard and fast truth. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make money as a writer today. I certainly can’t say I make a good living. I seem to be viewed as a “cult” writer, whatever that means, but it’s definitely equated with making lots of money. But it’s a deadly mistake to equate art of distinction or merit with making money. One really has nothing to do with the other.
There are lots of references to divinatory arts in your novels. Do you believe in fate? Would you like to know yours?
I do believe in fate, but I think it’s impossible to know what it is for oneself aside from intimations here and there, and those can be misleading. We are the blind leading the blind. Nobody knows anything, in my estimation. As Celine once wrote somewhere, and I’m paraphrasing, “All we see in life is mystery upon mystery.” I think that’s our fate.
You are such a prolific artist. Does this express your fear of dying? Do you think there is something after death?
Perhaps my compulsions do hide the fear of dying, I don’t know. On a conscious level, all I’m aware of is feeling the constant urge to do something. Producing something for some reason is supremely important to me. Time seems precious, and I loathe wasting it. And pretty much all artistic activity entices me; often I don’t care whether the result is considered conventionally valid or good. As for the second question, it’s the ultimate one, isn’t it? I have no idea whether there’s something beyond the grave. My only objection to the non-believer is, what makes you so sure there’s nothing? That rigidity is too dogmatic for me. But I freely admit to my cosmic uncertainties. Recently I’ve been intrigued by the thought that we might be met with a completely unimagined reality after death. What if there is something, and that something is beyond our wildest imaginations? Who knows? And maybe in the end it is nothing but the big sleep from which we never wake up….
Or, being influenced by French philosophers like Sartre or Camus, do you feel that the most absurd would be to have lived for nothing, without having produced anything?
Beyond my own urges, I don’t place any particular value on either activity or idleness. What does living for nothing mean? If I was able, I would love to do nothing at all, take it easy, and be content with that. The beach and a palm tree and a hammock — that would be my ideal situation. I’m incapable of it, sadly.
To talk about your work without underlining your sense of humour would be unfair. Readers laugh a lot thanks to Max’s irony, or when you play with clichés about the genres, in Un faux pas, for instance. Is your humour a shield against despair?
For me, so much of life is naturally funny. Mostly our defeats and agonies and pain. And the absurdity of it all. Without the shield of laughter, there’s truly nothing. What was it Rabelais said? “For all your ills I give you laughter.”
French people love your work. It seems that you are even more popular here than in the United States. How do you explain that?
There’s no question that I have much more of an audience in France than anywhere else. I feel incredibly fortunate for that. But not everybody loves me, even in France, the land of writers. In America they don’t seem to understand what I’m doing at all – or they don’t care. Without the French I’d be dead as a writer. There seems to be a natural affinity between myself and my French readers and the many people I’ve met in France. I’m eternally grateful for it. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say that the country has a long history of providing a home for marginalized or misunderstood American writers. The names of course are familiar. Why? It’s a complicated answer, and I’m not sure I understand it myself. The French are a singular people. It’s not easy to understand them and their predilections. What that says about me as a writer, I don’t know.
You have spent some time in France last year. What do you like and dislike in our country? Can you speak French a little?
I’ve been spending time in France for the past ten years, ever since Putain D’Olivia was published by the now-vanished 13E Note Editions. It’s become my second home in many ways. I love almost everything about the country except for one or two things. It’s extremely difficult to find good pizza. The French put sugar on popcorn, a no-no. Otherwise, it’s perfect. I can speak French a little — a very little. It’s a frustration for me. Understanding when people speak is rough – everyone talks too fast. Luckily for me, almost everyone in France has enough English for me to get by.
Interview published in New Noise n°53 – May-??? 2020